From chocolate ice cream in summer to hot chocolate in winter, there’s always some delicious way to indulge in chocolate – it’s never really out of season. But, right now, leading up to Valentine’s Day, is the big moment for chocolate, and chocolate candy in particular.
Valentine’s Day and chocolate go hand in hand. A box of chocolates is the favorite gift – symbolizing romance, indulgence, extravagance and love. The higher the quality, the more meaningful the message.
When I was a kid, we took an annual trip to Cape Cod that always included a walk up and down the main street of Hyannis. There was a chocolate shop there where a woman sat in the window facing the street making the chocolates on a marble slab. She took a prepared center, whatever flavor, dipped it in the melted chocolate, and, with a flick of her wrist made a distinctive curlicue on top, marking its flavor in chocolate code. Each one was identical, lined up in trays to cool like soldiers on parade. It was a memorable demonstration of skill – fascinating for a young boy who, even then, was dedicated to the consumption of chocolate candy. I’ve been enthralled by the making of chocolates ever since.
If, like me, you’ve ever melted a chocolate bar to dip some strawberries, it probably ended up with an unfortunate result – chocolate with a dull finish that never really hardens. Tempering the chocolate, an exacting and somewhat mysterious process, will solve those problems, if you’re willing to take the time. The right temperature and some stirring will organize the chocolate’s finicky fats and churlish crystals into a glossy, stable, and appealing piece of candy that will make you proud. The process involves melting some of the chocolate to an exact temperature, cooling it by stirring in more, and then warming again.
I was lucky to be invited to spend some time in the candy kitchen at Chocolate Rain on Wilton Ave. in Norwalk (ChocolateRainShop.com) to get some first-hand experience with creating luxury chocolates. Owners and sisters Diana and Helen Gould, took me in to see how their high quality chocolates are made, using the finest Belgian chocolate.
I was definitely in the way of the candy makers, but they were happy to show me the process. Carmina Polano sat at a commercial chocolate tempering machine, which maintained the chocolate, dark in this case, at the exactly right temperature while the constantly spinning bowl kept it blended. She was coating New Orleans truffles with their final layer, hand dipping each one with a special spoon, then tapping it on the edge to knock off any excess – a process called enrobing. (Isn’t that a wonderful word? It reminds me of putting on a fluffy bathrobe, warm from the dryer.) The truffles were put on a paper-lined tray and garnished with a pecan half that had been roasted with cinnamon and maple syrup. I watched with wonder!
The truffle-making process begins with cream, chocolate, a little butter and flavoring heated to blend, then cooled to working temperature. Called ganache, this mixture is piped into chocolate truffle shells. The shells are sealed, enrobed, and garnished with skill, patience and practice. “The flavor dictates the type of chocolate used – dark, milk or white,” said Helen, “Each truffle flavor has a natural chocolate match.”
There are four types of fillings for the confections at Chocolate Rain: ganache for the truffles; buttercream made with sugar, butter, vanilla and the chosen flavor; fancies, like a ganache but with oil, usually coconut oil, instead of cream; and lastly, caramels – sugar cooked to an exact temperature for the characteristic flavor, color and chewiness. All are made in small batches to insure freshness.
The Chocolate Rain showcase is filled with a wide range of buttercreams, fancies, and those healthy nut clusters, in addition to the truffles. The various shapes are made in molds – heart, pyramid, cherry etc. Tempered chocolate is poured into the molds, which are then banged against the tabletop to scare out any bubbles. Excess chocolate is poured out, and the process is repeated until the thickness is just right, and there is a hollow in the center. The filling is then piped in and the bottom sealed with more chocolate. No enrobing necessary. Some are finished with a drizzle of a contrasting color, like the long-ago chocolates in Hyannis. Needless to say, it takes some skill and experience to make glossy, blemish-free, perfect-looking candies.
In addition to soft centers, Chocolate Rain offers barks (I saw them making one with organic chocolate nibs and almonds in dark chocolate), nut clusters, and solid chocolates, as well as some pastries and macaroons.
Lucky me! After watching the candy-making process, I was invited to taste. White chocolate orange truffles had a bright fruit flavor; the strawberry creams tasted just like berries; salted caramels (coated with either milk or dark) were irresistible; peanut butter logs had an unexpected crunchy-creamy peanut filling; and the New Orleans truffles were laced with bourbon. I can see how these would be coveted Valentine’s presents.
The sisters are having fun creating chocolates. “It’s a happy business,” they said. “We’re making gifts. The customers, staff and industry people are all great to be with.” My only question – how can everyone who works there keep so slim?