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Chocolate is a decadent dessert that has been around for centuries! While it may be readily available today at grocery stores and even gas stations, there’s a big difference between prepackaged products and artisanal chocolate candies. There are people who devote their entire careers to the study of chocolate, and they are the top chocolatiers in the world.
Our friend Josh Gingerich spent some time learning the art of chocolate making from one of the best chocolatiers in the country. He was kind enough to share a little bit about his experience with us.
Q: How did you first get involved in candy making?
A: Spontaneously. I started in the pastry industry—I wanted to be a baker and work with bread. I enrolled in the pastry arts program at YTI (York Technical Institute) and got an internship right out of school where I met a friend who introduced me to a well-known chocolatier in the area.
I wasn’t seeking to become a chocolatier, it was more a matter of the opportunity presenting itself and I decided to take a chance.
Q: What kinds of candy do you make?
A: Mostly chocolate, but I also have some experience working with caramel and pate de fruit, which are fruit jellies that are cut into squares and tossed in sugar.
Q: Tell us about your experience working with candy.
A: I was hired as an assistant chocolatier at an artisanal French-influenced chocolate shop. I had only tried tempering chocolate once or twice in school, so I had to learn quickly. The shop where I worked had tempering machines that I used when preparing candies to sell, but the owner encouraged me to temper chocolate by hand in my spare time so that I could get a better sense of the process and learn to identify exactly what was happening to the chocolate as it reached different temperatures.
Q: What does it mean to temper chocolate?
A: Basically, chocolate is a crystalline substance. It has two types of crystals that become interlocked at two different temperatures, but there is a window where those temperatures overlap and that’s where chocolate tempers. Well-tempered chocolate has a specific, satin sheen.
Q: How do you temper chocolate?
A: To temper chocolate at home, you need to use a double boiler. Having chocolate directly on the heat will burn at the bottom while the top is still solid, so you’ll end up with a mess. You also need to be really careful not to get any liquid in the chocolate because that can ruin the process too.
Q: What’s a challenge that you faced while learning to make candy?
A: Any kind of candy making requires a specific skill. It’s a medium that you have to practice with and eventually you can tell the different stages just by looking at it and by smelling it. I’ll still use a candy thermometer when working with caramel, but I’ve become familiar enough with chocolate to recognize when I need to add more cocoa butter or take it off the heat.
Q: Why would you add cocoa butter?
A: Cocoa butter is just the fat from the cocoa bean. Processing plants take the raw beans and separate the solids from the fats (or cocoa powder from cocoa butter). The art of chocolate making is introducing these two ingredients back together in an artful way. In ganache, you can add cocoa butter at any point to make the chocolate more stiff, since cocoa butter is solid at room temperature. It helps keep it stable and it’s also tasteless, so it won’t ruin the flavor of your candy, which is especially important when you’re working with exotic fruits or other flavors in the chocolate.
Pure white chocolate is basically just cocoa butter and sugar, without any cocoa powder, to give you an idea of the role it plays in the mix.
Q: Do chocolatiers ever process the raw cocoa beans themselves?
A: It’s possible to process cocoa beans and I’ve seen it done, but the results are not consistent. Processing plants have the proper equipment to get really consistent, high-quality ingredients from cocoa beans and the chocolatier then chooses from a catalog of products offered by the manufacturer. I worked mainly with single-origin chocolates and found that each region has a distinct flavor profile, just like specialty coffee beans.
Another similarity to coffee is there are different grades of chocolate and the top-tier products are harvested from old growth plants. But, unlike coffee, it’s not just a matter of roasting and grinding the whole bean to achieve a final product. There’s more that goes into the process of chocolate making, so most chocolatiers will entrust that first step to a processing plant.
Q: What’s the difference between artisanal chocolate and commercial chocolate?
A: The main difference is that many commercial chocolate makers will replace some of the cocoa butter with other fats. Cocoa butter is very expensive, but if you’re trying to make ganache or any kind of pastry, trying to work with commercial chocolate becomes extremely difficult because the fats don’t melt at the same rate and don’t solidify properly. I mostly worked with couverture chocolate, which uses 100% cocoa butter and is considered an extremely good quality chocolate.
Removing cocoa butter affects the snap and sheen of the chocolate, so if you come across a chocolate that has a dull finish and bends easily, chances are, it has some other oils in it besides pure cocoa butter.
Q: What makes a good chocolate recipe?
A:There needs to be a balance of acid and liquid content. Some ganache is strictly cream based, but you can also make ganache with a mixture of hot cream and tea, fruit, or even just pure caramel. Once you have a basic understanding of the chemistry, you can get creative and adjust recipes you might find online or in books to transform them into your own creations.
It’s also important to consider the visual effect of your chocolate candy. Cocoa butter takes well to coloring, so if you spray a thin layer of colored cocoa butter onto your candy mold, you can achieve a bunch of different effects by mixing different colors and swirling them, or sometimes, we’d do a splatter effect—different things to make the presentation more impressive. But classic brown with just a lavender blossom or some kind of small seed on the corner is a very typical French look that’s beautiful in its own way.
Q: What kinds of businesses did you sell your chocolates to?
A: We had an online store where we did most of our wholesale business. Our customers included a lot of high-end hotels and small artisanal pastry shops all over the country.
We’d package about 50 pieces of one type of chocolate per box and often, customers would purchase as many as 12 different types that would each be packaged in separate boxes, all insulated with ice packs and shipped with quick 2-day shipping. Then, once the boxes reached their destination, the hotel staff could divide them into different assortments for their guests.
We didn’t do too much retail business, but occasionally, people would wander in and keep us in mind for events they were hosting or other small-scale sales.
Q: Do you have any stories that demonstrate the importance of candy making or the impact of the product on the customer?
A: Chocolate is a universal language. Nearly every nation in the world enjoys chocolate of some kind and different cultures put their own spin on it. Whether it’s French, Mexican, or Ghanaian, people put their own spin on the ingredients and make recipes to represent their culture.
The look on someone’s face when they taste a really good piece of chocolate communicates the appreciation that they have for that type of chocolate and that style. And that’s satisfying to see.
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