Food — Chocolate, Part II
Chocolate, Part II

By Amy Diaz

Dipping, swirling, melting, eating chocolate Sweet treat is unusually forgiving to novice cooks

The second of a two-part series on the sweet stuff

Chocolate is indeed your friend.

Forget all the stuff you’ve heard about its happiness-causing properties and possible health benefits. Chocolate is your kind companion because, in addition to being delicious, it is very easy to work with.

Too much cocoa powder in the batter? Well, first of all, I doubt it, as the result is usually — and I’m talking cookies, brownies and cakes here, not the inherently fussy tortes and soufflés — just a better, more chocolaty baked product. But, you can always restore the balance with a little sugar.

Chocolate mold turn out lopsided? Melt and try again.

As long as you don’t burn it, chocolate is one of the few ingredients that doesn’t make you eat your mistakes; it usually lets you fix them.

Fun with chocolate

To learn how to play with chocolate, I turned to the folks at Van Otis Chocolates.

Though I love adding cocoa powder (generally more than the recipe calls for) to cakes, cookies and brownies I admit that I tend to steer clear of chocolate that requires melting. There’s the boiling of water, the constant stirring but, more than the effort, what scares me is the possibility of burning the chocolate. It seems like such a thin line between melting and smoking.

People like Debbi Springer know better.

Springer is one of the workers at Van Otis, where large double-boiler-like pots melt chocolate all day long. Once in its liquid form, the chocolate is used in molds, to cover truffles and other candies and for dipping. The melting process, because of the high caliber of chocolate used, requires it to be both tempered and seeded, as Springer explained. That process? The chocolate is melted and brought up to about 110 degrees. Then, the chocolate is brought down, slowly, to 85 degrees. Then, the chocolate is brought back up to about 88 degrees, when a small, unmelted chunk of chocolate is added to the melted stuff. This seeds the chocolate, a process that helps bring the fat and sugar molecules back to an even distribution, Springer said. (Uneven distribution — a natural result of the melting — can cause the oils and sugars to separate and can cause white streaks once the chocolate dries.)

After about 10 minutes, they test their chocolate by taking out some and letting it dry, she said. If it gets a smooth, slightly shiny skin and, after 10 minutes in the refrigerator, lets out a snap when broken and shows a smooth interior, then the chocolate is ready. (If it’s not tempered correctly, it will have a honeycomb look on the inside, Springer said.)

While Van Otis’s chocolate can come in 10-pound chunks, yours is more likely to come in hand-sized bars. My tests with chocolate melting at home, however, did yield good results (smooth, snap-producing chocolate) from seeding the melted product with an unmelted square.

Though Springer and her colleagues use their refrigerators to cool chocolate quickly, she doesn’t recommend that the layperson try it. Home refrigeration comes with more humidity, and “chocolate’s biggest enemy is water,” Springer said. Keeping chocolate at 68 degrees will allow it to dry without worry. 

Do the dip

Simplicity and elegance — chocolate-dipped strawberries have really cornered the market on classy treats.

At Van Otis, these not-too-sweet, fresh-tasting creations are among the most popular around Valentines Day. The downside of this treat is that while most chocolates can be kept for months (if properly wrapped and kept in a cool spot), chocolate-covered strawberries are pretty much a same-day affair. Because the fruits contain water, they can begin to leak and pull away from their chocolate coating.

So, even though Van Otis’s production is now focused on Easter (one of their busiest holidays), the coming weekend will mean plenty of special orders of chocolate-covered strawberries, made to be purchased and enjoyed only hours after they are assembled.

To get some help with dipping technique, I met with Sonia Santiago, who has one of the most-fun-sounding jobs at Van Otis. She works in a slightly chilled room where the chocolate is molded and where items such as strawberries or long pretzel sticks are dipped in chocolate. As we assembled a chocolate-covered strawberry tree (chocolate-dipped strawberries piled on top of each other against a foam cone) she gave me some good dipping tips:

• After swirling the strawberry (or other item to be dipped), wipe off the extra chocolate into a bowl to prevent drips or uneven chocolate coverage.

• Unused chocolate can be poured out onto a parchment- or wax paper-covered sheet and left to cool. Once hardened, it is ready to reuse.

• Keep in mind that chocolate that has been used for dipping can collect small crumbs (such as strawberry seeds or salt off the pretzel) that you might not want to use for other purposes.

• Of all the chocolates, Santiago likes milk chocolate best for dipping.

• Likewise, she feels white chocolate is the hardest to work with.

—Amy Diaz

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