I don't know about you, but if I have been, say, ignored or otherwise ill-treated, chocolates will go a long way toward making up for it. So, in an effort to treat my poor blog, passed over in the frenzy of a very busy holiday season, as I would like to be treated, the following post will attempt to win back favor by indulging in an all out chocolate-fest.
I became interested in chocolate making last year after meeting with a friend of a friend, Brendan Gannon, who at the time was running a local artisan chocolate business, La Tene, and making chocolates of great beauty. It was one of those moments when something that should have been obvious but wasn't becomes clear and you are stunned by the revelation. My revelation was this: people make chocolates. I mean, of course they do, but if you were, like me, a casual consumer of chocolates and had become familiar with them in childhood by way of some waxy box of Russell Stover at Valentine's, you may have been more of the opinion that machines make chocolates. The difference is marked, like the difference between a sliced loaf of shelf-stable bread that will hang around for a week or more and a crusty, flour-sprinkled loaf that demands to be eaten straightaway.
The well-stocked and inventive chocolate section at Harvard Square institution, Cardullo's, is a favorite shopping spot of mine and frequent visits keep the chocolate bowl in my kitchen full of bars. It's been years now that I've been indulging in dark chocolate bars from around the world, many with interesting additions ranging from pink peppercorns to roasted chicory, but it was rare for me to have molded chocolates as an adult and I hadn't developed an appreciation for the artistry that goes into making them. That is until, spurred on by a visit to Brendan's chocolate kitchen, I started reading about chocolate making, learning, gathering tools and practicing on my own.
This fall I got to take my practice to the next level in a series of chocolate classes with Chef Delphin Gomes, who wasn't exactly supportive of the idea of vegan chocolates or pastry, but who was an exceptional teacher whose skill with chocolate was inspiring and whose unstoppable French punning was memorable. Following the class, I started tempering chocolate in my spare time, a process in which the chocolate is taken through several different heating and cooling periods in order to create a dense crystalline structure that will make the finished chocolates shiny, smooth and hard. I'd smear the chocolate on my lip like Chef Gomes, watch it carefully as it fell back to the bowl in a gorgeous dark ribbon, feel the changing resistance of the melted chocolate as it cooled, trying to internalize how chocolate looked and felt at every different point in the tempering process. I started doodling notes, drawing from my experimentation with rolled truffles, thinking about all the different chocolates I could make. And I started thinking about making chocolates from an ethical vegan perspective.
There are plenty of near-universally recognized "great chocolates" that are naturally vegan. Valrhona, El Rey, Guittard, Michel Cluizel, and Callebaut all make couverture chocolate that is vegan and which many pastry chefs and chocolate makers prize. (Couverture, meaning "covering" in French, is a finely ground chocolate with a high cocoa butter content that is used for making chocolates.) In this sense, vegans can consider themselves lucky to have access to such a wide world of fine chocolates, but from an ethical perspective the labor and environmental practices put to work in the production of these chocolates should also be taken into consideration. Both chocolate and sugar are responsible for many labor and environmental evils around the world, but there are many positive choices to make by choosing fair trade and organic products to make delicious chocolates with an ethical point of view that also provide opportunity for simple enjoyment.
In putting together the assortment of chocolates that I gave as holiday gifts this year, I tried to create a balance of interesting, even adventurous, flavors and flavors that would be instant comfort. For every straightforward creamy peanut butter filled chocolate, a peanut butter filling loaded with freshly grated cinnamon and hand-ground cardamom.