“I’m not doing chocolates this year,” I said. “It’s a huge amount of work, I just started a new job, I’ve been burning the candles at both ends for a month now, and besides I need to finish writing my book.”
“Nope. Definitely not doing chocolates this year,” I said.
Which does not quite explain how I managed to return from last weekend’s grocery shopping with 1 gallon of super-heavy whipping cream (actually manufacturer’s cream–40% butterfat!), 3 lbs of butter, 2.5 lbs of frozen raspberries, 2.5 lb frozen boysenberries, 2 lbs of almonds, 1 lb dried sour cherries, 2 lb premium dried apricots, dried pears, a bottle of Armagnac, and, well….stuff. You get the idea.
What can I say, I’m weak.
(Besides, it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without chocolate excess. 😉 )
At any rate, having acquired all this stuff, it would of course be a shame not to use it. So I am making chocolates again this year, as I have for pretty much every Thanksgiving for the last eight or nine years (I skipped it the year I was traveling SE Asia). But this year I am keeping it relatively simple and straightforward, with a minimum of fuss:
- chocolate-dipped dried pears
- chocolate covered apricots
- cherry-almond clusters (dried sour cherries and almonds in chocolate)
- vanilla-jasmine-orange-blossom-honey caramels, dipped in chocolate
- Armagnac truffles
- jasmine truffles
- English toffee
and that’s it. (I was tempted to throw in white chocolate-Meyer lemon-lavender fudge–because the stuff tastes so fantastic–but enough is enough.)
Believe it or not, for me that’s pretty restrained; normally I do another six or seven flavors of truffles on top of all that, and make about 30 lbs of chocolates. This year I plan to make about 20 lbs, but I’m never quite sure exactly what it will come out to.
Unfortunately, since I received my divine directive to make chocolates after my chocolate supplier’s warehouse sale (they’re a wholesale business and only sell to the public a few times a year), I’m restricted to only the chocolate I have on hand (I keep a small stock on general principles). I had thought it was going to be OK. I counted five 3-kg packages–some open–and figured that was probably about 13-14 kg of chocolate, which comes out to about 27-30 lbs, which should (almost certainly) be enough for a Thanksgiving run.
But, one of those packages turned out to be empty (or rather, it had 5 lbs of cocoa in it), so it turns out I only have about 10-11 kg of chocolate, which is about 20-24 lbs of chocolate, and that’s pushing the edge. I think it ought to be OK, but I’m actually worried about running out. Normally I stock up to at least 60 lbs of chocolate before I make a big batch. But we’ll see.
But more about this chocolate? you say?
I’ve been a chocolate fiend since time immemorial–I used to make chocolate truffles and bonbons (buttercream icing, chilled and dipped in chocolate–creamy and buttery inside, chocolate on the outside, yum!) in college, twenty or so pounds a week. I experimented with a lot of different flavors. I used Ghirardelli chocolate, which was the best I’d found. I made decent truffles.
Then I discovered Valrhona. Wowza. Valrhona was not only WAY better than any other chocolate I’d tasted, it showed me a whole new level of chocolate…I had no idea that chocolate could have such complex flavor overtones, like the different varieties of coffee. It was like growing up drinking instant coffee and then being introduced to real coffee.
That was when I got really interested in making gourmet chocolates. I’ve experimented with a lot of different flavors over the years–pretty much any sweet spice, any fruit, and any liqueur, plus white truffles (truffle truffles!), and, er, stuff. Lots of stuff. I have a bookshelf full of books on chocolate, not just the plain chocolate desserts but actual chocolate technical manuals, etc. I spent one winter helping out at Donnelly Chocolates –Richard Donnelly is one of the top ten chocolatiers in the U.S., I got a giant marble slab 2.5’x4.5′ for tempering chocolate…and so on. Not totally overboard, but pretty close.
So anyway, that’s my chocolate history. The stuff I’m making this year is mostly very simple–the dried fruit–or the stuff I can’t live without, my favorites. They are:
Armagnac truffles. Armagnac is the lesser-known sibling of cognac, and is a restricted appellation–only grapes grown in the Armagnac region of France may be made into Armagnac. (Rather like Napa wine–if it isn’t grown in Napa, it can’t be called Napa wine.) Armagnac is single-distilled, and aged in oak, which gives it a stronger and less subtle flavor than cognac, which is double-distilled. (It does, however, have great complex flavor.) Because it has a stronger flavor than cognac, it does better in truffles, and Armagnac truffles are one of my favorites.
Jasmine tea truffles. If you have never tried these, they are *fantastic*. You get the wonderful floral aroma of jasmine tea, mixed with chocolate…and the aroma just keeps going and going and going. They are my favorite truffle, hands down.
Other favorite truffles include whisky truffles (after much experimentation, I’ve concluded that MacAllan 12 is the best), cinnamon, raspberry and boysenberry, Chambord, Bailey’s Irish creme, and orange truffles. Orange truffles I make with orange curd, which is related to the lemon curd you can buy in stores. Basically, you boil 1 pint of orange juice down to about 1/4 cup; mix 4 egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar, add 1 tbsp of orange zest and 3-4 tbsp of butter, add the orange juice, and heat very slowly over a low flame until it’s thickened. You get this wonderful, sweet, rich, intensely orange-flavored stuff that I could eat by the spoonful. *wonderful* stuff, I’d love to try adding it to croissants someday. A spoonful of two of it added to chocolate truffle mix is great. (For the detailed orange curd recipe, buy a copy of The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. This is also one of my favorite cookbooks.)
I’m particularly proud of my caramels. They are absolutely fantastic, and the secret, once again, is jasmine tea. I make my caramels with orange blossom honey, vanilla beans, and jasmine tea. (And lots of cream and sugar, of course.) I slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and add it to the cream, heat the cream to boiling. The minute it starts to boil, I yank it off the heat and add a tablespoon or so of jasmine tea. (I use Peet’s Yin Hao Jasmine tea, which has the strongest jasmine scent I’ve found. It really does matter to the quality.) I let it steep for a minute or two–just long enough to get the jasmine scent, but not the bitterness of the tea–then strain it out, scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean and add them back into the cream. Then I make the caramels.
What you get out of all this is an intensely floral vanilla caramel. Using real vanilla beans adds a complex floral flavor that you just don’t get from vanilla extract. I also use Tahitian vanilla beans, which are larger and more aromatic than regular vanilla beans. (They also cost the earth right now. I was lucky enough to lay in a supply before vanilla prices (recently) quadrupled.) The jasmine tea adds more floral notes, and the orange blossom honey caps it off. People swoon over these caramels. But it’s really not the recipe–it’s the quality of the ingredients.
(I get my orange blossom honey at the farmer’s market, where they sell pure orange blossom honey (the stuff you buy in stores is mostly diluted). I buy the stuff year round to put into my tea, but the honey for my caramels I buy only in the spring. For some reason, the early-season honey is always the most intensely and gloriously floral–so I watch for the first honey and taste it as soon as it turns out. If it’s a good year–which it isn’t always, rain and other stuff can alter the flavor–then I buy six to eight pounds and hoard it away. That way I’ll always be able to make these caramels, even if it’s a bad year for honey. Yeah, I like them that much.)
You don’t have to go that far, of course, to make fantastic caramels. But I love food–and cooking–so much that I pay a LOT of attention to what goes into things. It’s rather like working with fiber–you can make a good thing out of OK fiber, or you can make something fantastic by paying more attention and choosing better fiber to work with. Whether it’s worth the effort depends on what you’re using it for. It’s possible to get pretentious about it–and some people would probably consider my efforts at least somewhat pretentious–but for me it’s not: it’s about being true to the art, and respecting the ingredients. It’s about making it the best I can make.
Oddly, I didn’t really have this attitude until I encountered Valrhona chocolate–I worked at candymaking, but I didn’t push myself to the same degree. I think for me it’s the chocolate. Valrhona isn’t just a candy, it’s something made by people who are passionate about chocolate, who care ab
out quality more than anything else, who live for their art, as a master vintner lives for making great wines. To do less than my best with such a chocolate would be disrespectful, both to the chocolate (fantastic) and the artisans who made it for me. It would be like saying their efforts are nothing.
Come to think of it, I feel more or less the same way about fiber. If I’m working with great fiber, from someone who has been breeding their flocks for decades to get their results–I feel I owe it to the shepherd to create something as beautiful as I can. They have given me a gift from their passion–I add my own passion to it. I don’t think I’d feel the same way about random fleece from a range flock. It is really about the life-force, the connection, between the maker and the next recipient down the line.
Anyway, I made a small batch of French truffles today (that’s just for Thanksgiving dinner–I said I’d bring chocolate 😉 ), tomorrow I will start making caramels, and maybe some of the toffee. Frenzied chocolate-dipping doesn’t start until Friday. 🙂