Jo asked how to get started working with chocolate. I unfortunately don’t know of any beginner books that are still in print – I got started with this about twenty years ago (has it really been that long! egad), but most books on making chocolate candies will include instructions for tempering chocolate. Working on marble is not the easiest method for tempering, though. The easiest method is to melt the chocolate until barely warm, then stir small bits of solid chocolate into it until the mixture is very slightly cool to the touch on your upper lip (about 89 degrees Fahrenheit, if I recall correctly). I don’t find it to be quite as reliable as working on marble, but it’s a lot less frustrating – working on marble is something that I didn’t really “get” until I spent one winter working part-time for a chocolatier.
At any rate, to work it on marble, you first heat the chocolate to 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit by chopping it fine and putting it in the microwave, stirring frequently. (Forget the whole double-boiler thing; the microwave is quicker, equally useful, and doesn’t risk getting water into the chocolate, which will cause the whole thing to seize up. I haven’t touched a double-boiler in the last fifteen years at least.) Then you pour about 2/3 of it out onto the marble and stir it back and forth with some kind of spatula (I use a pair of large paint-scrapers that I bought at the hardware store). When the chocolate on the marble gets to be distinctly cool on your upper lip (it may also start thickening at that point – if you are seeing bits of chocolate coagulating, stop IMMEDIATELY), scrape it up off the marble and dump it back into the container with the warm chocolate. Stir until they’re combined.
Now comes the tricky and frustrating part. Dip a butter knife into the chocolate, scrape off one side, and set aside in a cool (not the refrigerator) place until the chocolate starts to harden. Examine it very closely for any sign of streaking – if it is streaking, the chocolate is too hot or too cold (most likely too hot) and will produce streaked chocolates. Wait another couple minutes and then test it again. When it produces a glossy surface, you’re good to go.
For starting out I’d try things that are relatively easy to dip – dried apricots, macadamia nuts, candies, etc. Making truffle centers isn’t hard either, but if the recipe involves egg yolks (many do) you’ll have to keep the results in the fridge. Come to think of it, if you aren’t successful at tempering the chocolate (I couldn’t manage it for the first few years), don’t bother tempering it, just dip it and store in the fridge until about twenty minutes before you’re ready to eat it. It’s equally yummy that way and a lot less fuss.
The beginner book I would recommend (if you can still find a copy) is “Truffles, Candies and Confections: Elegant Candymaking in the Home” by Carole Bloom. It’s the one I use for many of my non-chocolate recipes, and has excellent information on candymaking and chocolate tempering. Her Vanilla Cream caramels are the base recipe (heavily adapted) for my jasmine tea-vanilla bean-orange blossom honey caramels. Definitely worthwhile if you can get your hands on a copy.
The book I primarily use for truffles these days is Frederic Bau’s “Au Coeur des Saveurs”. It is NOT a cheap book ($180 or thereabouts, last I checked) nor is it meant for beginners, but it has excellent information on how to work with chocolate. If you are beyond beginner books and looking for something that will take you to the professional/semipro level, this is it. It’s written by the head pastry chef for Valrhona (makers of what is generally considered the best-quality chocolate in the world) with professional pastry chefs and chocolatiers in mind.
Chocolate-wise, I use Valrhona chocolate. It is not cheap (I buy it in bulk for $12/lb) but it is easy to work with and the flavor is fantastic. They actually have several different blends of chocolate, each with its own flavor profile (just like coffee, chocolates can be quite different depending on their origin and the type of tree). I like the Extra Bitter, which is an extremely smooth, adaptable chocolate that I use for dipping, the Manjari (a very fruity/tart chocolate) for fruit flavors, the Tainori (floral overtones), and the Alpaco (nutty overtones), but they have several other interesting blends as well. Most of them are not easy to lay hands on, but if you get really stuck, let me know and maybe we can work something out.
Whew! This is making me hungry. I better get off to breakfast.