Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chicago Day 3: Chocolate

A couple of years ago, my birthday present to myself was a chocolate making course at a local pastry school. It was an all-day course and we learned how to manipulate chocolate into various forms – including how to temper chocolate by hand. Tempering chocolate is extremely difficult and takes years to master. I’ll quickly explain the ‘essence’ of tempered chocolate – it’s when the crystals in the chocolate form to create that shiny appearance and the nice firm snap when you bite into a properly tempered bonbon. I’ve had chocolates that were improperly tempered and let me tell you, nothing is more disappointing than a mealy, dull piece of chocolate that melts all over your hands. Yes, an additional perk to tempered chocolate is that it won’t melt at the slightest touch of human hands – it stays intact and is fairly shelf stable, which is why tempered chocolate is such a desired skill to have for any aspiring chocolatier. Anyway, chocolate is melted, then cool and then SLIGHTLY warmed up again to 88C – at which point it is ready to be worked with. It’s a very, very delicate art and I admire anyone who can do it successfully. I’ve avoided tempering chocolate on my own (even though I was gifted a marble slab) because it is so labour intensive, but after creating some fantastic bonbons in Chicago, I may be tempted to try it again.

At the Pastry School we were spoiled. If we wanted tempered chocolate? Visit the chocolate tempering machine. Yes, a machine! I’ve seen some smaller machines online (kind of looks like a flattened ice cream machine) – but I have never seen anything like this:

This was a real commercial chocolate tempering machine, cycling out a steady stream of cocoa goodness that was begging to be molded, shaped, folded and enrobed into sweet delights. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when I saw it for the first time and chef had to (jokingly) warn us, “do not put your faces into the chocolate machine!” I’ll be honest. I was tempted.

We got to work with the machine right away. One of our first projects was to fill chocolate molds with pear caramel. And we needed to make the molds! So off we went to collect a container of chocolate! Our setup: chocolate mold, sheet pan lined with parchment, chocolate spatula, and of course – chocolate! A chocolate mold, for those unfamiliar is kind of like a fancy ice cube tray. Instead of simple cubes, there are fancy patterns and shapes and it can be made of silicon or food grade plastic. (I’ve seen some metal ones but are seldom used) We held the mold over the sheet pan and tipped it on a slight angle (towards the pan) and poured the chocolate over the mold, ensuring that each cavity was filled. We tipped the mold on a steeper angle for the excess chocolate to run off and using the spatula, we firmly rapped the sides of the mold to knock out more chocolate. Once we had an even and fairly thin coating on each cavity, we used the spatula to scrape off the chocolate from the flat surface of the mold. All the excess chocolate was salvaged on the parchment paper, which was placed in the chocolate cooler so that it would later be added BACK to the machine (no waste of chocolate allowed!).
Raspberry lollipop dipped in chocolate, pear caramel, trio, rum truffle

Those were the only molds that we used, but we went back to the machine fairly consistently to get chocolate to enrobe our trios, truffles, lollipops and to decorate our cake. With the trios and truffles, it was fun to handle the chocolate by hand – it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. After taking the course at the Vancouver Pastry School with Chef Ropke, I’ve always paid close attention to the feel and temperature of tempered chocolate. Although thermometers are handy and are a good gauge, I believe Chef Ropke’s philosophy that to know when chocolate is ready – “just put your hands in it!” The consistency and temperature (successful or not) will be evident to the touch.

Actually – now that I think of it, we used another kind of chocolate mold to create our trios. The trio bonbon that we created was a cluster of three caramelized hazelnuts that were placed on a chocolate disc and then enrobed in chocolate. We used a thin and flat mold with small circular cutouts to create the discs on a Silpat. We then placed the cluster of nuts on the disc (while still in a liquid state) and let them firm up in the cooler.

We used the chocolate to decorate our ‘masterpiece’ cake as
Chocolate sponge soaked in orange spiced syrup,
alternating with chocolate mousse
well. We didn’t dip the cake in the chocolate – although that would have been amazing!! We created a ‘ribbon’ of chocolate that would encircle the outside of the cake and then curls to adorn the top. We used a strip of acetate (thick, food grade plastic) that we measured and cut to the diameter of our cake. We poured a small amount of chocolate on the acetate and then using an offset spatula, spread the chocolate along the length of the acetate strip. We quickly wrapped the strip (chocolate side FACING the cake) around the cake, making sure that the edge of the strip was flush to the base and that the ends of the strip overlapped. After a few minutes in the cooler, the strip was removed and voila! Our cakes were being hugged by a beautiful band of chocolate. So it serves and aesthetic AND structural purpose! It’s certainly a tip I will adopt when I make complex cakes in the future.  Of course, no ‘masterpiece’ cake is complete without chocolate curls! This was done very easily – we poured some chocolate on our stone counters (not sure if they were marble or granite) and using an offset spatula, quickly spread out the chocolate into a very thin layer. The thinner the layer = the faster it will set. I also discovered that a thinner layer of chocolate yields more delicate curls. My partner had not created as thin of a layer and the curls I created using that chocolate were a bit bulky, and to be honest, did not have the nice crunch as the thinner curls. In any case, it was fun to do and added a lovely topping to our cake. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chicago Day 2: Croissants

Chef stood at his usual place behind the demonstration table.

In his French accent, he declared, “Today, we make croissants.”

He began to explain to us the methodology of croissants and the work involved. I always knew croissants were tricky and labour-intensive. Every flaky layer is created by pockets of butter and unlike pie crusts, these layers were even and flat, there is no cutting or crumbling of butter in croissants. The croissant is started by making a basic yeast dough, it’s not particularly special or butter-rich. It was quickly made in the stand mixer and let to sit out for an hour and a half before spending the night in the fridge. The next day, we were taught how to incorporate the butter into the dough.

The amount of butter involved was staggering. It was a brick. Actually, it was a brick plus an additional 10g. I puffed out my cheeks and let out a long breath. My eyes widened at the thought of integrating that brick of butter into the dough. When you consider how much butter a portion contains, it’s not actually that much but to see an entire brick is a bit overwhelming. He rolled out the dough to a large rectangle, approximately 8” wide and 14” long. He explained that based on this size, he would have to create a “butter book” that was around a third of the size. The concept was that you pound out the butter into a thin sheet that would be folded into the dough. It would sit in the middle (with about ½ to 1/4 inch edge of dough on each side) and the two ends of the dough would meet in the middle, creating a butter sandwich, if you will. He pulled out a large piece of acetate, which is a piece of clear, thick plastic film that has many purposes in pastry arts. For example, it’s commonly used to wrap around the outside of cakes for stability and construction. In this case, the acetate would serve as a containment wrapping for the butter to be pounded out. Like rolling out a fragile dough between two pieces of parchment! He measured out the approximate shape of the book (7.5” wide and 6” long), folded the acetate accordingly and reached for his rolling pin.

I am sure that in professional kitchens, there are better ways to do this – but to watch this acclaimed chef vigorously beat a pound of butter into submission was oddly thrilling. I guess there’s a certain comfort in the ‘old school’ techniques that connects us to the old masters of pastry arts. After pounding out the butter into a “book”, he carefully laid it in the middle of the dough and folded the ends over it, enclosing the butter. He quickly rolled out this dough lengthwise, back to about 14” long and 8” wide. He folded the dough again, this time into thirds (like an envelope), keeping the open edge to his right. This completed one “turn”. Three full turns are needed to complete the dough before the final rolling. Once you finish a fold (if the dough is still cool – if not, into the fridge!), roll out the dough again, emphasizing length to fold into thirds. After the second turn, he sent us back to our tables to let us try our hands at making the dough.

When we got back to our table, my partner Rachel turned to me and said, “so…you can do the croissant dough!”

I sighed. This was going to be tough.

But at the same time, I relished the opportunity to bash the heck out of that butter!