Sunday, March 28, 2010

Your Basic Peanut Brittle

With things getting increasingly depressing in my day-to-day (work) life, I needed a little hobby action to take the edge off the fact that tomorrow is Monday. So I ventured into sugar work. I had some choices: Hard candy? Taffy? Brittle? Toffee? I had a bunch of nuts in the pantry, so decided to make peanut brittle for the first time. The recipe was pretty basic: mix sugar, water and glucose syrup in a pan and boil the heck out of it. At soft ball, add peanuts and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture is a nice golden-brown color (at around 320 degrees F), then add salt, butter, vanilla, and baking soda. Watch the hot bubbly action! Pour onto an oiled surface, allow to cool, and stretch thin. Remember to use clean gardening gloves or two forks, because this stuff remains hot for a while.
Learnings: If you pour the brittle onto a marble slab, get to stretchin' right away. The slab cools down the mass very quickly (relatively speaking), and if you don't stretch it almost immediately after pouring, it'll set up and you won't be able to work with it. Also, I finally learned that with sugar work, the long boring part is waiting for the water to cook out of the solution. Once that happens, the mercury goes north very quickly and boredom is no longer a concern. Lastly: mise en place MUST include a bowl of ice water in case molten sugar solution splashes onto vulnerable skin.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coming Attractions

I've finished the Professional Chocolatier course I took through Ecole Chocolat, and now I have to keep up the momentum by refining my recipes and learning others. Only problem is that I also have to prepare for a job interview on Monday and do my best to get more interviews into the pipeline. Searching for work sure puts a crimp in my candy making time. I do wish I had a bunch of spare money lying around so I could open a little shop. Le sigh. Anyway, after my Monday interview it'll be time to dive back into the sugar bag and come up with a new challenge: Seafoam. I do not have the natural affinity for sugar work that I do for chocolate making. It will likely take all my self-discipline to avoid cursing from frustration and teaching my parrots dirty words. But I'll keep at the seafoam challenge until I come out victorious. Then it's on to brickles and taffies and toffees. Some of which I'll have to cover in chocolate, of course. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nibby mint meltaways

The final piece for my last course assignment had to either be a cream-free truffle or a meltaway. I love meltaways and had never made them, so settled on those. The formula for a meltaway is 2 parts chocolate and one part coconut oil, plus an oil-based flavoring if desired.
Inclusions generally aren't used in meltaways, as they can distract from the silky-smooth melty sensation. But I decided to use cocoa nibs in a mint meltaway base. I enrobed them in a dark milk chocolate and topped them with some cocoa nibs I made myself by chopping up some whole cocoa beans with my trusty chef knife. I had some prepackaged Scharffen Berger nibs, but they had gotten heated up in shipping and the cocoa butter had risen out, settled on the surface and then hardened up again, giving the nibs with an unsightly bloom. These cocoa beans, which are raw and dried rather than roasted, have a deep cocoa flavor with a bright, acidic overtone. Plus, they're gorgeous and without bloom. They cracked apart easily with hardly any pressure from the knife.

I started my meltaway batch by chopping 12 ounces of milk chocolate. Then I measured out 4 ounces of coconut oil and melted it. Next I melted the chocolate to 120 degrees F, let the coconut oil cool to 120 degrees, combined them and added an eighth of a teaspoon of mint oil. Then I added the prepackaged nibs (I did it old-school, judging by sight and feel the correct ratio of nibs to meltaway base). I mixed it all thoroughly, then turned it out onto my slab. Chocolate mixed with coconut oil is extremely fluid. I could barely keep this batch from running off the slab, and I had to table it very quickly and deftly to temper the mass so it would set up properly. Once I got the mass in temper, I scraped it off the slab and into a bowl, then poured it into a frame set up on a silicone mat on my other slab. I cleaned everything up and started another batch of passionfruit caramels, and after an hour had gone by I checked the meltaway to see if it was setting. No dice. After another hour had passed without sign of much crystallization, I picked up the whole setup, slab frame and all, and took it downstairs. Our basement is wine-cellar cool -- an ideal spot for candy setting and storage. Soon the batch had set up nice and firm. It was easy to cut, and then I got to practice my dipping technique. I feel much more comfortable now with my pieces. I'm able to set them onto parchment, move them slightly forward to prevent a foot from forming, then swipe the fork out without leaving behind the dreaded vampire-fang points of chocolate to mar the smooth base. I needed to pause every few pieces to drop a few nibs onto each before the chocolate set up. The big bonus for today is that there was very little humidity, which meant my chocolate was very easy to work with, not sludgy at all. It's been a wonderful chocolatiering weekend.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fondant, Continued

The loss of my lemon fondants irked me, so tonight after dinner out with some friends, I whisked the rest of the basic fondant batch into the microwave, heated it to 160 F, added a tablespoon of blood orange concentrate, a teaspoon of grand marnier, and a half teaspoon of grated orange peel. Stirred well, spooned it onto waxed paper atop my slabs, and let it set up. Tomorrow they'll get a coating of bittersweet. These are miles better than the lemon basil attempt from earlier today. I'm still not a fondant convert. The super-saturated sweetness of fondant takes the purest of flavors and Disneys them up. Orange is no longer tangy, it's Tang (tm). Not that there's anything wrong with Tang, or Disney for that part, says the blogger who doesn't want to be sued. But it's not a flavor I'm looking for in my candies. Still, I'm counting these as a win because they are pretty, and they are tasty.

Lemon and Sweet Basil Fondant

I finally made a (nearly) successful fondant. I don't have much luck, generally, with sugar work, and so my fondant assignment has been a challenge. Last night I made up the first batch and it got a few degrees to warm. Result: Hot Glue Hell. The batch was so sticky I couldn't work it. So I threw it out and started again. I was up until 12:30 a.m. working the fondant on my slab to get it crystallized enough. Then I let it sit overnight, mixed it with lemon juice, lemon zest, and a little fresh sweet basil. I added several drops of lemon essential oil, stirred and tasted. It was really nice! Very lemony with just a little zing of basil. Then I decided to try balancing the sweet lemony taste with a drop of sweet basil essential oil. The feeder in the bottle top was too generous and before I knew it my one drop turned into three, overbalancing the batch toward the herbal notes. I decided to go ahead and make up the molds, to see if the taste combination with chocolate would save the batch, but no luck. I made the most beautiful chocolates of my life, but threw them away after they'd had their photo opp. I will keep the recipe, sans the basil essential oil.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Gianduja with handmade placed decorations

Gianduja is tricky business for gianduja beginners. It lures you in with "I'm so easy" and then makes you work for it. Work for it I did, and after some struggle I met with success: cashew giandjua (a combination of cashew butter and milk chocolate) covered in perfectly tempered semisweet chocolate (it looks a bit matte here but that's just the lighting. Honest.) and topped with little moon-shaped handmade white chocolate placements.

I started with 350 grams of milk chocolate and 200 grams or so of cashew butter, melted both and mixed them together, then dunked a teaspoon and did a taste test. Nicely balanced nut and butter flavors and textures. Also: Yummy. So I poured the mass onto my slab and moved it around with my spatulas until it started thickening up a bit. Then I did a quick test. It didn't set up. Pooh. So I increased the chocolate by a 150 grams and tempered it on the slab, which took forever because of the fat from the cashew butter. By that time was ready for dinner so I said "screw it," threw the tempered mass into the rulers on the slab and let it set. A couple of hours later I came back to a slab that was so sturdy I could have built a little house on top of it. It was nothing you'd want to cover in semisweet and bite into. I muttered curses, covered the thing up with plastic wrap, and left it overnight to sleep by itself and think about what it had done wrong.

The next morning I melted it down with 100 grams more cashew butter, tempered it again on the slab, put it back into the rulers, and let it set while I worked. The result: Perfectly smooth gianduja that was also firm enough to cut, enrobe, and then top with my little moons and discs (see previous post). The third out of five efforts for my final assignment can now be marked as satisfied. Additional note: I topped a finished gianduja with some cinnamon and tried it out. Tasty! I'll add this variation to my next recipe.


For part of my assignment, I have to finish a chocolate with a "placed decoration" of my choice. So I decided to make discs using a rubber stencil, a transfer sheet, and white chocolate. I'm no big fan of white chocolate, particularly in candy centers. But it's good for dramatic enrobing of dark centers, and  it can be used to make decorations, so I keep it around. The trick is to get the best quality stuff you can afford; the cheap stuff is ghastly. I gathered my ingredients (white chocolate, cocoa butter) and supplies (bowls, spatulas, transfer sheet, rubber stencil, jelly roll pan, bench scrapers, parchment, and both marble slabs), put my hair back under my wacky chocolatiering hat, washed my hands, and set to work.

For this exercise, I decided I'd better thin out the couverture a bit. White chocolate can be vexingly thick and difficult to work with. So I fished out a few ounces of cocoa butter and nuked away until it was liquid. Then I melted the white chocolate and mixed in the heated cocoa butter until the chocolate was the consistency I wanted. I set the cocoa butter aside to be re-tempered and stored, and then I tempered the white chocolate on my slab.

While the chocolate was melting, I placed the transfer sheet, design side up, onto my marble. On top of that I placed my circle stencil mat. Then I poured the tempered chocolate over this set-up, spread it evenly, tapped out the bubbles, and waited for it to set up enough to scrape down. Learning the proper timing on this takes practice, as evidenced by the fact that I didn't do it quite right this first time. I scraped, and some of the chocolate came away from the circles I was trying to create. I'm not sure if this is because I hadn't let the couverture set up enough, or because I let it set up too much. I'll need to investigate. At any rate, I peeled off the stencil and after the chocolate had set, I saw that many of the little discs came out well enough to use for my assignment. Some were raggedy-edged, and I cut them down into sickle moons. If I want to do this on purpose next time, I'll remember to use my circle cutter when the chocolate hasn't fully set. Otherwise, it cracks and you lose most of your hard work.

Notes for next time: Thin the white chocolate more; figure out the correct timing for scraping down the stencil.