All 40 boxes of chocolates have been claimed! Thank you so much for your support over the years.
All the boxes are now claimed! Chocolates for Charity is closed. Thanks for your support over the years.
A few other tidbits:
- The chocolates are perishable, as good chocolates are wont to be. Eat them within a week or else put them in the fridge. If you put them in the fridge, my advice is to let the chocolates come to room temperature before eating them; you’ll get better flavor that way. (of course, I have never been disciplined enough to follow this advice, but maybe you have more willpower than I do!)
- You can see the chocolates (and flavor lists) for the last few years here:
A bit about my chocolatiering:
I’ve been chocolatiering for almost 30 years now, making about 90-120 pounds of bonbons every November for friends, family, and Chocolates for Charity donors. I spent one winter training with Richard Donnelly of Donnelly Chocolates (who frequently appears in Top 10 lists of American artisan chocolatiers – the most recent appearance was in National Geographic’s Top 10), so I’m pretty good at chocolatiering now. I’d put my work on par with some of the best artisan chocolatiers – though I don’t have the equipment to do some of the really fancy stuff, you won’t find better chocolates elsewhere. I also do a lot of exotic flavors that you won’t find elsewhere.
38 flavors in 2017! The new ones are:
- Earl Grey tea fudge
- maple bourbon caramel
- orange caramel
- gingerbread orange caramel
- Prune, port, cinnamon and honey caramel
- Blackberry yuzu
- Peanut butter
- Sorrento lemon peel
Many thanks to Susan, Edie, and Chris, who helped make the chocolates; my friends Carolyn, Brian, Chris, Edie, Jeremy, Pam, Nyondo, and Danika, who helped pack the chocolates; and to my friend Lieven, who did the photography!
This year’s chocolate harvest was a bumper crop! We made 38 flavors of fudge, caramels, candied citrus peels, and fruit jellies, totaling 118 pounds, 6 ounces. We ran dangerously low on chocolate at the end – was 106 pounds of chocolate going to be enough? – but it turned out fine; in fact, there was a whole 6 pounds left over.
Here are the finished chocolates, neatly boxed up and ready for packing:
And here is a little bit about the process.
These are the prune, port, cinnamon, and honey caramels (delicious!) midway through the dipping process:
For those not familiar with the chocolatiering process, the chocolates on the right have transfer sheets on top of them (the yellow goat on a red background). Transfer sheets are basically edible decals. A sheet of acetate is printed with an image in colored cocoa butter, then placed on top of a freshly dipped chocolate. The warmth of the chocolate coating melts the cocoa butter, which fuses with the melted chocolate. After the chocolate hardens, you can pull off the transfer sheet, leaving the cocoa butter image behind.
You can buy preprinted chocolate transfer sheets, but because I wanted a distinctive look, I had a set of transfer sheets custom printed with Chinese paper-cut animals. This harkens back to an old family tradition. When I was a kid, every year we would screen print our own Chinese New Year cards, in two colors, using a Chinese paper-cut animal from my parents’ collection as the cover of the card. (The animal, of course, always corresponded to the Chinese Zodiac animal whose year it was: a tiger for the Year of the Tiger, a horse for the Year of the Horse, etc.) The printing process was an all-family job: my mom designed the cards and cut the paper to size, my dad printed the cards, and we kids would tear around all over the house laying the printed cards out to dry on the floor. It was a ton of fun, and I like to think that by sending out holiday chocolates with Chinese paper-cut animals on them, I’m continuing the tradition.
Working with the transfer sheets can be challenging, however. As delivered from the manufacturer, the transfer sheets are just one color:
I tried pre-printed two-color transfer sheets in the past, but had trouble getting the image to adhere. So now I hand-paint each transfer sheet with colored cocoa butter:
Cocoa butter contracts as it hardens, so the transfer sheets need to be allowed to harden for a day or two with a weight on top to keep them flat.
After that comes the cutting – one sheet at a time, because the acetate shifts and the cocoa butter backgrounds tend to crack if the sheets get stacked:
And, finally, the different images need to be separated and stacked, each in its own container, until ready to dip.
This may not sound too awful, but when you consider that I typically use about 120 of any given motif in a batch of chocolates, and that there are 30 different design motifs, that’s a lot of transfer sheets to cut. 3,600 of them, to be exact – each hand-painted and hand-cut, one at a time. (Props to my friend Susan, who does most of the cutting every year.)
Even after all that work, transfer sheets can be tricky. Chocolate is extremely temperature-sensitive, and if the room is too warm, the transfer sheets won’t adhere properly. And the temperature during this year’s chocolate season was abnormally warm. When we started peeling the transfer sheets off the vanilla latte flavor, the room was too hot – about 75 F. The images started peeling away from the chocolates, like this:
Bad, bad. Very bad. But what could we do? We needed to clear some trays so we could make more chocolates, but the room wasn’t going to cool down any time soon.
Fortunately, Mike and I have a portable air conditioner in the dining room. We hooked up the air conditioner and pointed it at the baker’s cart where the trays of chocolate are stored. That got the temperature down to 65 degrees. After an hour, we tried peeling off the transfer sheets again – and voila!
I’ve often said that the challenging part of chocolatiering isn’t making the chocolates taste good. Armed with a good recipe, even a novice can make wonderfully good chocolates. The hard part is making them look good – and that can be challenging indeed.
I took a break midway through chocolate season, as usual, to celebrate Thanksgiving at my friend Carolyn’s house. Of course I brought a few chocolates with me:
The maple bourbon caramel and orange caramels on bottom left are my favorite new flavors from this year. The maple bourbon caramel has about 3/4 of a bottle of bourbon whiskey in each batch, plus cream and maple sugar, and is delicious. The orange caramel is made with cream, sugar, a ton of mandarin orange zest, mandarin and navel orange juice, and a small shot of lemon juice to give it a bit more acidity. The result is a marvelously buttery, sweet orange flavor with just enough acid “zing” to keep it from being cloyingly sweet. It tastes like the orange curd (similar to lemon curd) that I used to make in college – one of my favorite confections.
I made 38 flavors this year, expecting to fit in only 37 – but by a miracle of packing and special dispensation from the gods of physics, we managed to fit all 38 flavors into the box. The flavor index will go into a separate blog post, but I’ll leave you with this year’s holiday card. Happy holidays, everyone! May your coming year be beautiful, delicious, and many-flavored.
I usually spend the first half of chocolate season testing new flavors. Since everyone asks me “How did you come up with that flavor?” I thought I’d share how I do it.
To my mind, a good bonbon has a balanced, complex flavor profile. Perfumers talk about “top notes,” “middle notes,” and “base notes”. I think of confections as having something similar. In my flavor vocabulary, bitter, earthy, and musky overtones are base notes. Most fruits, acids, and spices are middle notes. Flowers, citrus oils, and the sweeter herbs (e.g. basil) are top notes. Unlike perfumes, a good bonbon doesn’t need to have all three notes, but I strive to have at least two. (This is my personal preference, of course; everyone has different ideas of “good”.)
The first key to composing interesting flavors is understanding what chocolate tastes like.
- Dark chocolate has a strong flavor, characterized by bitterness and what I think of as an “earthy” flavor, mixed with a little acidity, and tempered with moderate sweetness. Different varieties of dark chocolate will have different overtones on top of that, but they all share this basic combination.
- Milk chocolate gives a milder and sweeter chocolate flavor, mixed with creaminess from the milk.
- Good white chocolate is flavored with plenty of vanilla. (Poor white chocolate – which is unfortunately most of it – is flavored with artificial vanilla, made with palm oil rather than cocoa butter, and tastes crappy.) Strong floral overtones, sweet taste, creamy and milky.
Dark chocolate’s basic flavor profile is a base note: bitter and a little earthy. (Plus moderate sweetness.) To get a good flavor combination, I generally add either a middle or a top note. So I use dark chocolate with spices, nuts, florals, herbs, and the more acid fruits. I don’t generally use it with other base notes, because I find that the two flavors tend to “battle” each other, and the chocolate usually wins. So truffles (the fungus) don’t work well with dark chocolate, because the flavor of truffles is mostly an earthy fragrance, which disappears under an avalanche of similar flavors from the dark chocolate. Similarly, black tea does not perform well, because it consists mostly of base notes. Green tea, on the other hand, works just fine, because it has strong grassy and sometimes floral notes that sit in a higher range. So even though the chocolate overwhelms the bitter flavors in the green tea, you can taste the other flavors just fine.
Coffee is an interesting case, because it’s a mix of bitter and acid flavors, plus the scent of coffee, which I’d categorize (completely non-scientifically) as a middle to top note. When you mix coffee with dark chocolate, the result is a very bitter flavor with a hint of acidity and the coffee “nose”. (Plus chocolate, of course.) You’re basically doubling down on the bitterness and “depth” of the flavor. Some people like this; some don’t. If I do coffee with dark chocolate, I’ll mix it with a sweet and strongly flavored spice (cardamom leaps to mind), both to add a different note and to cut the perceived bitterness. More often, I’ll pair coffee with white chocolate, where the bitterness and acidity complement the floral “top note” of vanilla. I find that makes it easier to showcase both flavors.
White chocolate’s flavor profile is primarily floral (vanilla) plus a little creaminess. Most people think of vanilla as a subtle flavor, because it interacts only with the nose (only bitter/acid/sweet/salty is perceived by the tongue, the rest is in the nose). But it’s actually a very strong top note. So it tends to interfere with perception of other floral top notes – I don’t generally pair jasmine or rose with white chocolate, for example, because it turns into a war over who gets to dominate. (Lavender is an exception, I think because its pungency and latent bitterness operate in a different range than the vanilla.)
White chocolate is also very sweet, so I generally add something acid or bitter to balance out the flavor profile of a white chocolate center. So I’ll pair white chocolate with green tea, citrus fruits (particularly the tarter ones like lemon or lime), coffee, fruits, and so on. If I don’t, the result is often cloyingly sweet.
Milk chocolate is a midpoint between dark and white chocolate. I’m not a big milk chocolate person, so I don’t use it much.
Now, some flavors don’t mix well with any of the three chocolates. Maple syrup, for example, has a strong flavor. But it is composed of an earthy base note plus a sweet top note (very vanilla-ish in my book). Dark chocolate overwhelms the base note and white chocolate overwhelms the top note. So if you mix maple syrup with either white or dark chocolate to make a bonbon center, the taste doesn’t come through. Does that mean it’s impossible to use maple syrup in bonbons?
No! But it does mean you need to use it differently. You need to concentrate the flavor rather than diluting it. The easiest way to do this is by not using a ganache center (chocolate mixed with cream and butter), but a type of center that concentrates the flavor. Caramels and fruit jellies work very well. These centers concentrate the non-chocolate flavors and enable them to come through. (Blackberry, for example, is much more subtle than raspberry so does better when concentrated in a fruit jelly.) I’ve been experimenting with maple syrup for years, trying to get it to work – one of my test flavors this year is maple bourbon caramels, and it seems to be working out nicely so far. (The bourbon adds a woodiness and a little bitterness to offset the sweetness of the maple syrup. )
After I’ve created and tested the basic flavor profile, I cut up the centers and dip them into the appropriate chocolate. I’m testing two things. First, I want to know whether the taste of the center is still strong enough to come through clearly when mixed with the chocolate coating. Second, I want to see how the flavor develops on the tongue.
Chocolate bonbons do not deliver a single flavor. Instead, it’s parceled out over time, as the various parts of the bonbon break down in your mouth. In particular, the flavor of the center generally “arrives” before the flavor of the chocolate coating, because the center either has water mixed in to soften it (ganaches and fruit jellies) or is composed primarily of sugar (caramels and fruit jellies). The chocolate coating, on the other hand, is an emulsion of cocoa butter, cocoa powder (for dark chocolate), and sugar. You don’t really taste the cocoa powder until the cocoa butter surrounding it melts, whereas a water or sugar-based center releases its flavor a lot faster. (This is one reason why caramels and fruit jellies are so effective for concentrating flavors that don’t stand up to chocolate on their own – they melt faster in your mouth so you get a burst of the “pure” flavor before the chocolate shows up.)
I won’t throw a bonbon out of bed because it doesn’t develop in an intriguing way, but the ones that do tend to win a permanent place in the box. This is pretty rare.
The final step in flavor testing is to wait a few days and then sample the chocolate again. The inside of a chocolate, particularly a ganache, changes over time as the flavors combine and interact with the cream and dark chocolate. The results can be surprising. I had a very strongly flavored three-chile chocolate that looked very promising – but three days later, all you could taste was a hint of chipotle. The other two chiles had vanished completely.
Conversely, flavors can mellow. Last night I made a dark chocolate ganache with grapefruit zest and lavender. I tasted it right after making it, and it was such a disaster I nearly threw it out. I had forgotten that grapefruit zest and lavender buds are both bitter. Combined with the dark chocolate, the result was unpleasantly harsh. This morning I tasted it again, and the taste was quite pleasant – initial chocolate impact, with the lavender coming through in the middle and a hint of grapefruit at the end. I’m still not sure whether it will make it into production (the lavender tends to overwhelm the grapefruit, I think), but I’ll cut it, dip it in chocolate, and give it a chance. If I have time I may do a re-run and add more grapefruit zest.
One of my favorite flavors, by the way, is MacAllan 12 Scotch in a dark chocolate ganache. Not just because it tastes good – though it does – but because the flavors develop intriguingly over a period of about three days. Sadly, you’ll never taste this unless you make them yourself – so what are you waiting for?
315 grams heavy cream
90 grams glucose (or light corn syrup, but glucose is better – you can order it on Amazon)
100 grams Scotch whiskey (I use MacAllan 12)
40 grams softened butter
750 grams dark chocolate (I use Valrhona Extra Bitter, which you can get from Chocosphere)
Chop dark chocolate into 1/4 to 1/2″ dice. (If using Valrhona pastilles, you don’t need to chop anything). Put in a bowl.
Mix heavy cream with glucose and bring to a boil. Pour over the dark chocolate and let sit for a few minutes so the chocolate melts. (Push down any lumps of chocolate visible on top so they’re surrounded by the hot liquid.) Using a small whisk, whisk around the center of the bowl to mix the chocolate with the liquid. Try to create a smooth, thick mix in the center first, then slowly stir in widening circles until all the liquid has been incorporated. Add Scotch and repeat the process until you have a smooth mix. Finally, add the softened butter and repeat. Pour into a bowl and let cool to room temperature.
Using a melon baller, scoop bits out of the bowl and roll them between your (very clean, well-powdered with cocoa) hands to create a small sphere of ganache. Toss each sphere into a bowl of cocoa powder to coat them, then put them into a container and store in the fridge.
(The flavors won’t evolve as quickly as if you were storing a chocolate-covered bonbon at room temperature, but they do change – and it’s delicious at any stage.)
If you cannot find glucose (the syrup form, not the powdered kind), in a pinch you can just replace it with cream.
If the mixture winds up curdling when mixed, it’s either too hot or too cold. If you get the temperature between 90 and 94F, it should work fine. (And yes, adjusting the temperature that finely is every bit as irritating as it sounds. But it will work.)
If the mixture is too soft, there isn’t enough cocoa butter in your chocolate. You can either re-melt and add more chocolate (keeping in mind the temperature note above), or – what I usually do – just stick it in the fridge until it’s firm enough to make into balls. (It will also make excellent hot chocolate if you add it to milk and microwave. It’s OK as hot fudge, though it tends to solidify.)
If the mixture is too hard, a little heat (I’m talking 5-10 seconds at a time in the microwave, on low power) will soften it up.