Apologies for this not-at-all-humble brag, but I give the best homemade candy to my friends at this time of year. As in, spouses-hide-it-from-one-another, good candy.
I have been doing this for 30 years, and if I stopped now, there would be hell to pay. Still, every now and then, I daydream about some other, easier gift. Why? Because for exquisite candy, I have to temper chocolate.
Chocolate, you see, has some unusual molecular properties. Cocoa fat, (which is a major constituent of chocolate) has a crystalline structure. During chocolate-making those crystals are split apart and super-homogenized with cocoa solids and the other ingredients, such as sugar and milk, to create a solid bar.
These tiny crystals of cocoa butter, however, don’t like to be parted from one another. They will pounce on any encouragement – warm temperatures, say – to reunite. You know that white bloom you found on the mini-chocolate bars you bought for Halloween and forgot about for a year? That’s caused by cocoa butter crystallization (which probably happened sometime in the steaming dog days of August).
This cocoa butter behavior causes trouble too when we melt chocolate for dipping candy. Simply heat the chocolate and dip, and the cocoa butter will glom together in big crystals. The coating will be streaked with bloom and have a crumbly texture, instead of the characteristic “snap” of a properly-tempered chocolate.
For shiny, crunchy candy, you must “temper” chocolate – that is, take it through a finicky series of temperature shifts that discourages cocoa butter crystal glom – before dipping. Honestly, properly tempering chocolate is a pain in the neck.
First you have to melt chopped chocolate, carefully and slowly so it doesn’t burn, to a precise temperature – about 120 degrees for dark chocolate and 105 degrees for milk chocolate. The melted chocolate is then “seeded” by sprinkling in a bit more unmelted chopped chocolate while stirring well.
When the chocolate drops to a specific temperature, about 80-82 degrees, it is then carefully warmed just a tiny bit, to about 88-89 degrees for dark chocolate and around 86 degrees for milk chocolate. Only now can dipping begin.
When the temperature of the melted chocolate begins to drop too much, it is necessary to warm it again back to the ideal dipping temperature, carefully and while stirring well.
All in all, the process is messy and tedious but usually rewarding. Usually. Sometimes the weather refuses to cooperate – it’s simply too hot, or too humid to get a good temper (one reason high-end chocolatiers refuse to ship candy in summer). Sometimes it just seems like the kitchen gods are grumpy, and no matter how careful you are, the chocolate comes out a streaky mess.
That’s no reason to give up. On bad tempering days, or days when you only have time for a “fast temper” (much less tedious than “fine-tempering”), just do as confectioners have always done. Sprinkle the imperfect chocolate coating with something delicious such as chopped nuts, flaked coconut or cocoa powder. The snap won’t be snappy, but the candy will still be delicious and no-one will know your secret.
Before you start
1) Spend the money to buy good chocolate that is intended for dipping. Such chocolate, especially if it is made in Europe, is often labeled “couverture” (covering), which means it is designed to melt into a thin enough liquid to be good for coating. Most are still multi-purpose enough that they can be used to make cakes, frostings and other things, too.
There are many varieties of couverture available from good producers such as Valrhona, Cacao Barry and Callebaut. I usually buy Callebaut because it is moderately priced (about $6 or $7 dollars a pound including shipping in block form), easy to find and reliable. Look for it online, or at local specialty food shops. It is sometimes available in chunks at Market Basket.
Beware the “candy coatings” found at big-box craft stores, or at least read the label before you buy. These are usually not chocolate at all, or have a very small amount of chocolate in them. They are easy to use, but they won’t be delicious.
2) Make sure you have the tools you need. (Candy-making supplies on this list can be purchased at cookware or craft stores and online).
∎ Dipping forks and spoons. These are very helpful, but you can also use your fingers or a regular fork.
∎ An instant read thermometer. Needed only if fine-tempering the chocolate.
∎ Sheet trays. At least one for holding the un-dipped centers and at least one for holding the dipped centers.
∎ A microwave-safe bowl. This needs to be big enough to hold at least two pounds of chopped chocolate.
∎ A heavy sharp knife and a sturdy (unscented) chopping board. Used for chopping the chocolate. Be careful when chopping – hold your fingers straight out as you push down, or risk losing a fingertip! Alternatively, you can buy small discs that are ready to melt, though they cost about twice as much as block chocolate.
∎ A heat-safe, sturdy spatula. Used for vigorously stirring the melting chocolate.
∎ Dish cloths. For wiping your messy hands; use a thick cloth under the bowl of melted chocolate for insulation to help keep it warm
∎ A microwave or a pot. The pot needs to be the right size to hold the bowl of chocolate above hot water for melting.
∎ Parchment paper and truffle cups. Parchment paper is a must-have for lining sheet trays and for in-between layers of stored dipped chocolates. Truffle cups are nice for packaging.
∎ Large, clean plastic containers with seal-tight lids. For storing the dipped chocolates at cool room temperature.
3) Have your candy fillings and toppings ready to go and your work station set up before melting the chocolate. If you are right-handed, place a tray with the fillings to your left, leave room for the melted chocolate in the center and place a tray for the dipped chocolate to your right. To the far right place any toppings you may want to sprinkle or roll your dipped chocolates in. Be sure you have a sifter/spoon/shaker, etc. ready for distributing the topping.
4) Know the ideal tempering temperatures for your brand of chocolate. This information is often on the packaging that came with the chocolate, or may be found at a company website. Write it down and keep it handy if fine-tempering the chocolate.
Tempering the chocolate
1) Chop at least two pounds of chocolate into small pieces. If dipping lots of candy, you may chop more than this as long as the bowl will accommodate it. The chocolate will keep its temper longer if there’s a large amount melted.
2) Place a bit more than three-quarters of the chocolate in the melting bowl.
3) Either place the bowl over a pot of almost-simmering water (do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water nor let the water simmer or the chocolate may burn), or place the bowl in the microwave. If your microwave is powerful, turn it to 50 or 60 percent power.
4) Stir the chocolate over the hot water often. If using the microwave, heat the chocolate with short bursts, about 10 seconds long, then remove the chocolate, stir well and return for another burst of heat. Use your judgment – if it is melting too fast, or seems to be getting too hot, leave it in the oven for a shorter time.
5) When the chocolate is pretty much melted, remove it from the source of heat and place the bowl on the folded towel in the center of your work station and stir well. If fine-tempering, check the temperature and make sure it has reached the ideal melting temperature (somewhere between 115 to 122 degrees for most dark chocolates).
6) If fast-tempering, add a small handful of the remaining chopped chocolate and stir very well. When it has melted, add more and continue stirring.
Stir until a dab of chocolate placed on your upper lip feels cool. Remove any large chunks of chocolate still in the bowl; proceed to step 8.
If fine-tempering, do exactly the same thing, stirring in chunks of unmelted chocolate, but continue until the chocolate reaches the proper low temperature (for dark chocolate, around 80 to 82 degrees).
7) If fine-tempering, return the chocolate to the heat source very briefly to raise the temperature of the chocolate to the ideal dipping temperature, stirring well to distribute the heat evenly (for dark chocolate this temperature will be around 88 to 89 degrees). Place the tempered chocolate on the cloth in the center of the dipping station.
8) Dip the centers one at a time. If using a dipping fork or spoon, lower the center into the chocolate, coat it completely, lift it out shake it up and down and scrape the bottom of the implement against the side of the bowl to remove as much excess chocolate as possible. Tip the fork or spoon to lower the dipped chocolate onto the prepared sheet tray.
If using your fingers, do exactly the same thing, but try to use only your right hand to lift the dipped candies so you have one clean hand at all times.
9) If fast-tempering, sprinkle coatings over the chocolates every few dips so the coating adheres to the chocolate before it sets (use your clean hand for this).
10) If the chocolate begins to cool and set, return to heat briefly, stirring well, to bring it back to the ideal dipping temperature. If the chocolate gets too hot, you will need to add chunks of unmelted chocolate and re-temper as described above.
11) If fine-tempering, let your candy set well before lifting it into a parchment lined box or into truffle cups using a small pallet knife or spatula. Try not to touch it or you will leave fingerprints in the chocolate.
Store the set chocolates at a cool room temperature in a sealed plastic container. If temperatures reach more than 70 degrees, the chocolates will bloom.
Pack them in decorative boxes and give away as quickly as you can so they will be fresh. Try not to refrigerate or freeze dipped chocolates as humidity may spoil their appearance.
For the caramel filling, see my recipe in the Nov. 23 Monitor Food section.