Christmas Chocolates

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Milk Chocolate & Vanilla Caramel

My friend Charles emailed me asking various questions about caramels -- how much salt to use, how to infuse herb scents, how to enrobe them -- and then my friend Lulu mentioned that she was going to make truffles as gifts for family when she visited over the holidays. My answers to Charles touched on ideas I hadn't yet tried myself (using silicone molds and infusing various herbs by steeping) and so inspired by Lulu's ambition, I decided to do the same myself.

I got a pound each of three kinds of chocolate, all El Rey brand. White, a 41% milk, and a 70% dark. I bought two silicone candy molds. I brought my Le Creuset silicone pastry brushes back to Massachusetts with me. My idea was to paint melted chocolate into the molds to make the top shell, then fill each with a filling, then paint the feet on.

First I started with the white chocolate, melting it in a double boiler:

White Chocolate

I wanted to fill the white chocolate with a mint concoction, so I tried making a simple mint syrup, but overcooked it to 250F so when it cooled, it was much too solid to use as a filling. I relented and whisked in some butter and a splash of heavy cream to make a pretty standard buttercream. I wanted peppermint, but unable to procure the fresh leaves, used spearmint that my father graciously picked up and a splash of peppermint extract for intensity:

Mint Buttercream

I've been avoiding using artificial coloring, so it was nice to have the leaves themselves to add bits of color to what would otherwise be plain white-on-white (an unforgivably gauche fashion sin, especially at this time of year.)

The painting proved tougher than I thought, until my brother Kevin made an astute suggestion: don't freeze the molds after painting the chocolate, freeze them before. Since silicone has a very high specific heat (i.e. it's an excellent insulator), this worked well, because cold silicone can chill melted chocolate down very effectively. If I'd used those thin clear plastic molds, those would have just warmed up too fast. So, here I am, painting some chocolate (I think this is the milk chocolate, so this is not chronological) into some molds with the pastry brush:

Painting with Chocolate

The successful technique we arrived at was: freeze the mold, then paint in a thin layer of melted chocolate. Freeze it again, paint on a second layer. Freeze it a third time and it's ready to be filled. Fill it and freeze it just until the it's solid enough to paint on a final chocolate layer, the foot; one more (longer) stay in the freezer and they're ready to turn out of the molds.
Kevin's suggestion worked so well that I drafted him into servitude. He was actually very good at all the technique, and was painting molds, filling the chocolates, running molds to and from the freezer, and turning them out and trimming them down like a pro immediately. Here he is, turning out a finished mold of white chocolates:

Kevin, Turning out Chocolates

And here are those chocolates. We were pretty consistently overzealous about the amount of filling we packed into each, so the finished products didn't have flat bottoms and needed trimming down and cleaning up.

White Chocolates

The next batch we made were the dark chocolates. I filled those with a rosemary fleur de sel caramel:

Rosemary Caramel

Testing a suggestion I'd made to Charles, I used double the suggested amount of fleur de sel from this recipe, and I steeped several sprigs of rosemary in the cream / butter / salt mixture before adding it to the sugar syrup (removing the rosemary before that part, of course.) It worked out very well. Here's a gratuitous shot of the caramel, looking delicious:

Rosemary Caramel

The rosemary was very potent; it could have been more subtle, but with the dark chocolate it worked very well. And we added a few grains of fleur de sel to each shell before pouring the caramel in to give it an extra salt kick and crunch.

Dark Chocolate & Rosemary Caramel

Here's a mold of these guys, with the feet just painted on. So these will be done as soon as they are chilled enough to turn out without deforming and then trimmed up.

Painted Feet

Note that I did not use the hearts. Their sides are too steep and the shape is too detailed, which makes them hard to paint with chocolate and hard to turn out when they're done. Plus, it's Christmas, not Valentine's Day. Come on.

Here are a finished batch of the dark chocolates, turned out and ready for trimming:

Dark Chocolate & Rosemary Caramel w/ Fleur de Sel

Note that I did not attempt to temper this chocolate at all. I knew I'd be keeping them in cold storage (out on the porch; it's Massachusetts, it's cold up here!) and I also have never successfully tempered chocolate and if I ever learn I think it'll have to be by example from someone who's good at it. It sounds difficult and finicky. They looked and tasted quite good even if they could have been shinier.

Finally, I made the milk chocolates. I wanted a more straightforward crowd-pleaser than the first two, so while I'd brought a bottle of rose water back with me from Austin, I decided at the last minute not to make rose caramel, but just a straight vanilla caramel. I used the same recipe, omitted the salt, added a scraped vanilla bean into the caramel as it cooked, and whisked some lemon juice in as it cooled. It was delicious. You can barely make out the vanilla specks in this photo:

Vanilla Caramel

My suspicion about the crowd-pleasing was confirmed: There were more milk chocolates than either of the other two, since it was our third batch and we had practice, so our yield was highest. And yet, as I write this, there are some dark and white chocolates left, a few, and all the milk chocolates are gone. I think it's because you can't really eat the white or dark chocolates in volume -- they're pretty intense -- but you can stuff your face with milk chocolate & vanilla caramel for hours before it gets old. At least, I can.

We cranked through a lot of chocolates in one day. All told, minus the ones we ate during preparation for "testing", we had 138 of them on the sheets at the end.

Finished Chocolates

White Chocolate & Mint Cream

I boxed a bunch of them up as gifts. Six to a box: Two of each kind. And I gave them out to family that showed up, and have a handful of boxes left for my parents' neighbors.

Gift Boxed Chocolates

The rest of them (and there were still quite a few) I handed out as mignardises after Christmas day dinner and put out on a platter later for dessert.

Overall, they were a huge success. None were botched, and it pretty much all worked out just like I'd hoped it would. The chocolate shells were nicely thin even though I used normal chocolate and not couverture; it was easy to paint the shells into the molds, fill them, and turn them out, and they looked good and the flavors worked together fantastically. I'd like to use exclusively peppermint next time, but you have to work with what you've got. And I'd probably use less rosemary next time in the caramel to make it a bit more subtle, but that's more a preference than anything else. It certainly wasn't overbearing.

The one difficulty I encountered that I'm not quite sure how to solve is that it took a while to get through all the batches of a given chocolate, during which the caramel would cool and need reheating to make it liquid enough to pour. Every time I reheated it, it crystallized a bit. The vanilla caramels had a good enough yield I had to reheat the caramel twice, and after the second time it was visibly grainy. Still tasted good, but the ones from that last batch were more like a sugar candy than a nice gooey caramel.

Anyone know how to solve that? I'm thinking maybe I should keep the caramel over a warm double boiler so it never solidifies, that maybe it was the fluctuation in temperature -- cooling then warming then cooling them warming -- that really spurred the crystal formation. I'm not quite sure.

That notwithstanding, these were a great success, surprisingly quick to make, and delicious. And thanks to Kevin for all his help!


At December 27, 2007 7:01 PM , Blogger Katy said...

I wish these chocolates were in Ohio, not New England.

At December 28, 2007 7:27 AM , OpenID clumsy said...

Bravo! Wonderful job on the chocolates!!

And yes, I think the double broiler would solve your caramel problems.

At December 28, 2007 10:51 AM , Anonymous Cacao Guy said...

'And yes, I think the double broiler would solve your caramel problems.'

Yes, but it may bee too warm for the chocolate (especially if you do Temper it). Add some Liquid Glucose or Corn Syrup in place of some of the sugar, this will result in much smaller crystals from the get-go.

When using Peppermint in molded chocolates, it will taint the molds (it's a very strong flavour).


At December 28, 2007 1:28 PM , Blogger brian said...

I've never had any problem with silicone absorbing any flavors, if that's what you mean by tainting the molds. I think it's pretty nonreactive and totally impermeable. I'm not entirely sure, though. The molds are cheap enough that it wouldn't be the end of the world. :)

As for the tempering, yeah, I have to admit I'm mildly afraid of tempering just because it sounds like such a finicky process. Not that making confections isn't, but I have decent intuition now for temperatures and syrups and whatnot, where I've never even seen anyone temper chocolate ever, and then you have to actually keep the finished product from getting too cold, right? Or the cocoa butter can decrystallize even in solid, finished chocolate? (I assume this is what causes sugar bloom in chocolate kept in the refrigerator.)

Fundamentally if I wanted well-tempered chocolate filled with caramel made with this method, I think I'd have to leave the caramel syrupy enough to be easily spoonable in the chocolate tempering range. Which I suppose means if I want solid-at-room-temperature caramel enrobed in chocolate, I have to mold the caramel and dip it afterwards instead.

At December 29, 2007 5:25 AM , Anonymous Cacao Guy said...

Hi Brian,
I take your point about the silicon molds, perhaps my statement was a bit sweeping :-)

Tempering chocolate is really not as scary as it seems, as long as you don't burn the chocolate during the initial melt, you simply start over if it doesn't quite work out.

Once you start using tempered chocolate the use of fridges and freezers goes out of the window. If you dip a knife tempered chocolate it will harden within a couple of mins at room temperature (around 20 deg C). The tricky bit is keeping the chocolate at the right temperature while you are using it.

The answer here is to do far more than you need, it will maintain it's temperature for longer (I pour the excess onto a plastic tray, let it cool and break it up for next time).

Sugar Bloom is actually the sugars in the chocolate coming to the surface although a similar thing can happen with the Cocoa Butter. In both cases the filling should be as close to the temperature of the chocolate as possible and cooling (very important) should be as 'even' as shock cooling and definatly no fridges (unless they're the special air cooled type).

Dipping is the way to go to begin only need temper the chocolate once!!

I'd love to see you give it a go, you will be so impressed with your results.

Good luck,


At December 30, 2007 2:30 PM , Blogger Amy said...


At January 1, 2008 4:29 PM , Blogger Katia said...

The chocolates are lovely...great idea for Valentine's day also. The rosemary sounds delightful, I might try lavender also.

At January 7, 2008 7:01 PM , Anonymous chris said...

Wow looks wonderful.I want to try this chocolate.

At February 28, 2008 9:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have made chocolates in molds but was trying to find information on molding caramels directly into a mold. These are firmer caramel not the liquid center kind. Thought it would be fun to make different shapes with the caramel. I imagine you would need to use either silicone mold or a hard plastic mold or metal one due to the heat of the caramel unless you let it cool down a bit. I was mostly wondering about how to get it to release from the mold successfully. I was planning on dipping them after. Any suggestions?

At June 27, 2008 3:56 AM , Blogger Marius said...

Tell your brother I say thanks for the freezer idea, it makes 100% sense to me now - I made the same mistake last night (freezing after I painted the chocolate) when I tried to make filled candies for fun.

I'm definitely going to use his method instead. BTW, those candies you made looks brilliant.

It also gave me an idea looking at your photos- drizzle different flavours of chocolate over the mold beforehand- it should make some lovely designs on the surfaces of the chocolates?

Thanks again for the tip

At June 30, 2008 2:53 AM , Blogger Marius said...

Just thought I'd let you know the chocolate drizzling thing works like a dream- although it looks a bit boring...

So what I did was to drizzle a different colour over the finished ones that came out of the mould.

A tip I can give you on this though is to wait until the candies is room temperature first, otherwise the drizzled chocolate hardly sticks when it solidifies (I think it has something to do with the water condensation forming when you pop them out right after they come out of the freezer).

Keep well ;)

At June 30, 2008 2:54 AM , Blogger Marius said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At December 18, 2008 7:16 AM , Anonymous Lana Petfield said...

Your chocolates are beautiful! I am a Pastry Arts instructor in Virginia, and recently told my students about your website - we love the great pictures! Here's a tip to make truffle making easier: To coat the molds with chocolate, its quick and easy to freeze the mold, then use a small ladle to fill each mold completely with chocolate. Let sit, filled, for 1 minute. Then, turn the mold over the bowl and dump out the excess chocolate. Use a metal dough scraper to go over the surface of the mold to remove excess chocolate. Then proceed as usual. Hope this helps, and keep up the great cooking!

At February 9, 2009 2:35 PM , Blogger How To Eat A Cupcake said...

Mmm I wanna make these for Valentine's Day. I just spend like $60 on Guittard chocolate and a ton of molds!

At May 19, 2009 8:12 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At July 6, 2009 7:50 PM , Blogger kitschykitschen said...

Hi, I'm a chocolatier and I'd LOVE to teach you how to temper chocolate. ;)

Also, in addition to the PA instructor's comment, I find it faster to fill with a ladle, scrape off the excess with a palette knife (I use a plaster scraper) and then knock it on the counter 2 or 3 times to omit air bubbles. Then tilt back over the bowl and giv'er a knock with the ladle again to really thin the shells out.

If you temper your chocolate, you won't have to go back and forth to the freezer, they will set in no time!

Mmmm. They look so yummmmmy.


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Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Rosemary Butter & Arugula

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

This is a meal for cooking night, tomorrow. I had to make the gnocchi tonight because every time I make pasta the day of cooking night, I end up rushing and regretting it.

I referred to the Omnivorous Fish's guidelines for gnocchi, as usual. Boiled some sweet potatoes and riced 'em as soon as I could stand to peel them:

Riced Sweet Potatoes

I got a ricer at Marshall's for $5.00, so this time the texture was actually right. Marshall's, by the way, is an amazing store for cookware of all kinds. They even have nice Le Creuset for 50% off! It's hit-or-miss, but man, it's worth checking out. T.J. Maxx is, too; it's basically the exact same store as Marshall's; they're interchangeable.

I made a dough with the potato and an egg and a bunch of flour, cut it up, and started rolling and cutting it to make gnocchi:

Gnocchi dough

An hour or so later, after much rolling of my thumb over fork tines, I had a bunch of gnocchi. Hooray!


The entire time, my actions were carefully monitored by a quality control agent, you'll be glad to know:

Gnocchi - quality inspector

Stoically she sat and watched me make the gnocchi. She watches me cook a lot. Her sister never does. I'm pretty sure she's studying to become a chef, and practices when I am not around.

I pan-fried the gnocchi in plugra butter with rosemary and served it over fresh arugula, which wilted ever so slightly just from the warm butter.

Finished Gnocchi

I might throw on some chipped Parmigiano or add some pine nuts or something, but it really stands pretty solidly on its own. It was tasty.


At December 20, 2007 7:04 AM , Blogger And said...

Ohh, I just made gnocchi recently! But I made it from regular potatoes and baked it with cream and cheese. Cute quality control agent! better to have the agent watching from afar than under foot.

At January 6, 2008 12:43 AM , Blogger Joanne said...

The gnocchi look fantastic! Never thought to throw them in a salad, great idea! when do you add the rosemary? Been enjoying your cats!

At January 6, 2008 2:50 PM , Blogger brian said...

I add rosemary kind of mid-way into the frying since it's relatively high-heat frying (as much as normal butter will tolerate without smoking, anyway.) Rosemary's pretty tolerant to heat, though, now that I think of it, so you could probably put it in right at the beginning. Those needles are robust and unlikely to burn too badly.


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More Autumn Food

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I know, it's been forever since I posted. It's not just that I'm lazy, I swear. What I noticed is that, when I started this blog, I had been working very diligently to improve my cooking technique. I've always been good at following recipes, but not as much at improvising. So for a while there, I was making lots of recipes, learning new techniques, classical preparations, fleshing out my repertoire.

I've been reading McGee cover to cover. I'm about halfway through. I started with the last couple chapters on cooking methods and common food molecules and then went back to the beginning. I've read eggs, dairy, meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables, and fruit, and am now at herbs & vegetable flavorings. Still to come: seeds, nuts, coffee, tea, wine, beer, maybe a couple other things. I'm getting there.

I've been reading several of my cookbooks, not just looking up recipes but really reading them, cover to cover, reading the sections on technique and the opinions of the authors and the nuances of various ingredients and cooking techniques.

And I've made a lot of progress. In particular, I can walk into the grocery store or farm or farmer's market now and just look around and see what's good and buy it and in my head ideas are floating around where they weren't before. Before it was more of a vague anxiety, like, I hope I can find something to do with all this stuff.

My cooking has been a bit less flashy and certainly less recipe-driven as a result, but it's been good. When I realized it had been far too long since I'd posted here, I thought, well, I can just post a random survey of what I've been eating lately.

For Thanksgiving I used the rest of the giant bag of sweet potatoes I got from Marysol, peeled, sliced, and roasted them in the oven with a bit of butter so they browned nicely, then mashed them with a little leftover cream, layered them in a pie plate, and topped with an improv crumble topping that I sweetened with blackstrap molasses and scented with orange juice and orange zest. It was great.

Sweet Potato, Orange, Molasses

Here are my cats:


For the Thanksgiving meal at my office, I made vegetable pot pies. I took the ingredients on the left and, using only my knife, no mandoline (I'm working on my knife skills), turned them into the mise on the right.

Veggie Pot PiesVeggie Pot Pie

Then I cooked the veggies variously (roasted the carrots, fennel, and potato in a big baking dish until tender, sauteed the mushrooms in cream) and lightly browned some chopped onion. I made two pie crusts ala Tartine (read: 2 sticks of butter per pie) and filled them.

Veggie Pot Pies

I closed the tops, trimmed it all down, and then baked them in the morning before heading into the office, naturally forgetting to photograph them then. But come on, obviously they were delicious. Tartine pie crust filled with savory veggies and cream and spices? Duh.

For cooking night, I promised something hearty and filling, so I went to Whole Foods. On finding that they finally had Meyer lemons in stock (they're on trees all over the place here, why'd it take so long?) I picked up a bunch of those, some good Granny Smith apples, some carrots, and a few shallots and just cooked it all down separately:

Carrots, Apples, Meyer Lemons

I cooked the lemons into a marmalade with as little sugar as I could tolerate, cooked the apples down into a straightforward applesauce, cooked the carrots until they were soft enough to mash, then turned the heat up to brown the bottoms a bit, caramelized the shallots, and layered it all in a pie plate. I mashed the carrots with the shallots and spread them on the bottom of the plate; I topped that with the applesauce, and finally spread the marmalade on top.

Man, it was an interesting dish. Sweet but herbal carrots, sweet but very brown and bulby shallots, sweet fruity applesauce, and super-tart, thyme-y, gelled Meyer lemon marmalade on top. It was kind of intense, especially the way the caramelized shallot flavor and Meyer lemon flavors went together. But it was really good! It kind of reminded me of the flavor of beets (a vegetable I am still learning to love) -- not that it actually tasted like beets, but it had that sweetness combined with the odd off-flavors and sharpness. I'd make it again.

Speaking of beets, last night I roasted some, topped them with a good Roquefort, simply pan-fried a chunk of good thick tuna steak, and ate it all with the leftover carrot/apple/lemon stuff:

Tuna, Beets, Blue Cheese, Carrots, Apples, Meyer Lemons, Shallots

Now you see why I didn't photograph the carrots/apples/lemons separately: They don't actually look very photogenic. It's just three orangey-yellow pastes on top of each other. The appearance belies the complex, delicious taste.

Yesterday while the beets were roasting, I also started another marmalade, this time cranberry-orange. Again, I used as little sugar as I could bear (still a reasonable amount, since cranberries and orange peel are both completely inedible, the one tart and the other bitter.)

Cranberry-Orange Marmalade

I just simmered that for a long time. Cranberries and oranges have a ton of pectin in them, and I threw in the orange peel while it simmered, so it was basically a Jell-O mold in a saucepan by the time I took it off the heat.

Cranberry-Orange Marmalade

I also prepped a chicken yesterday, drying it off and salting and peppering it, trussing it, and then wrapping it back up and refrigerating it overnight. I took it out tonight, drained the fluid that the salt pulled out, and dried it again with paper towels so the skin was as dry as could be, and then roasted it in the usual manner. About a half hour before it was done, I took it out and glazed it with a nice thick coat of the marmalade.

Cranberry-Orange Glazed Chicken

Here's my weirdo cat trying to eat my Rock Band box:


And again:


I always take my chicken's temperature from a different place. Usually I go with the Bouchon instruction: stop when the flesh between the thigh and body hits 155; it'll keep going to 160 on its own while resting. This time, it's the Joy of Cooking: stop when the thick part of the thigh hits 170 to 175. It should be about the same time, but it's an easier thing to consistently measure.

Cranberry-Orange Glazed Chicken

It sure looks good, anyway. Now I have to let it sit for 15 minutes. You'll have to wait until next time to find out. (And at my rate, that might be 2008.)


At December 4, 2007 10:46 PM , Blogger Roberto N. said...

I used to go for the old school, clear juice technique...

At December 5, 2007 8:22 AM , Blogger brian said...

Yeah, I should probably just do that. The problem is, with a bright red glaze, it's hard to see the juices sometimes to tell.

This chicken actually came out a little undercooked in the thighs; I'm gonna pan-fry them tonight to finish them up. But the breast meat was the best I've ever had. So I think it's just a question of oven temperature; I preheated it to 450F and turned it immediately down to 350F on putting the chicken in (the 450 to brown the skin right off the bat.) I think I need to leave it higher, like closer to 400F for a 4lb chicken, so the exposed thighs cook faster before the heat can penetrate down to the breast meat and make it dry.

At December 5, 2007 11:58 AM , Blogger And said...

I was inspired by Steph to buy some beets this weekend, but still haven't made them. Maybe I'll try them with cheese on top. I like the random pictures of your cats!!

At December 5, 2007 3:44 PM , Blogger steph said...

How can you not love beets????? They're my favorite. I also like your cat pictures. I want a kitten.

At December 5, 2007 3:45 PM , Blogger steph said...

I also forgot to write that we expect you to do most of the cooking when you're around for Christmas. Just so you know...

At December 12, 2007 8:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another idea for your apple sauce thing. The other day I had a quince and cranberry chutney. It was delicious. I think the quince might go very well with your meyer lemons.


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