Making chocolate in the summertime ranks right up there with driving a convertible in winter, eating sushi in Nebraska and wearing white after Labor Day. It’s just not done. For one thing, summertime gets hot, and tempering chocolate properly can prove to be more frustrating than doing needlepoint while driving. For another, once the chocolate’s done and set aside, it gets dangerous. If a single ray of sunshine hits it you may find yourself with butter-soft chocolate that only appears to be three dimensional. Once you pick it up, you will swear you’ve stumbled into the Harry Potter Zone, where nothing is as it seems and those gorgeous chocolates transform into a slithering mess of chocolate goo the moment you touch them. And finally, it’s too damn nice to stay in the kitchen and melt chocolate when you can buy a fudge sickle for a buck and suckle it on the beach while contemplating seaweed. Chocolate making, I’ve concluded, is like suicide; it makes more sense on a crappy day. And even then it’s crazy if you do it.
When I set out to chronicle my efforts to master chocolate making, I presumed that because I was catching on to how it’s done and cranking out some good stuff, that everyone in the world should do the same. Even more absurd, I thought that if I kept it up, I’d become a master and my life would hence be perfect. The agoraphobic Willy Wonka aside, no one ever hears about unhappy chocolatiers. They are more loved and admired than newborn babies and alcoholic pop stars and are a lot less trouble.
But I’ve learned a few lessons in my journey from normal human to crazed chocolate maker, and before I blog another post about the philosophical revelations that come of melting and molding, I feel I must forewarn you.
Not only is chocolate making best done in the cold with the dishwasher turned off, it gets to be like growing vegetables. If you are keeping your tomato plants alive by force-feeding them fertilizers, deadly pesticides, organic slug repellent, multi-super-vitamins and aura-reading vegetation healers, you’d better really love it and not care the least about how much those homegrown heirlooms are actually costing you. I swear I’ve spent more on chocolate making supplies than I’ve spent on furnishing my apartment, and all I’ve got to show for it are a few perfect bon bons and an incredibly shrinking wardrobe.
Still, I have to say that I love my own chocolates more than the priciest ones I’ve ever bought, and a plate of perfectly turned out chocolates gives me more pride than a perfectly written paragraph or perfectly parallel-parked car, so I suppose if I compare it to the cost of therapy, it can be argued that it’s cost effective, and who needs a pension anyway when one has boundless self-esteem?
Second, making chocolate may be Zen-like as I’ve preached in the past, but until you get to that perfected state of Nirvana, you’d better have the patience of a GPS or your loved ones will come home one day to find you standing in the kitchen grinning diabolically and dripping with melted chocolate, the floors and walls and ceilings so splattered and smeared in dark brown that not even Dexter could clean up the mess, much less make sense of the spatter pattern. The moment someone tries to take the laser thermometer out of your hand and sit you down they’ll discover you’re in need of heavy sedation and a tough-love intervention. But you’re unlikely to cooperate because chocolate makers are a determined lot, determined to win the war on cocoa butter no matter the casualties. Be forewarned, once you get started, it’s not easy to stop, and not even plumbing bills can bring you to your senses.
Finally, making chocolates takes a lot of time out of your life, time better spent watching prime-time soaps or shopping online for friends or jobs or temporary soul mates. Once you’ve got your freezer stocked with leftover ganaches cleverly packed in disposable pastry bags and labeled with stolen twist ties from the bulk bins, you’ll probably get it into your head every now and then to just “whip out” a few batches of mocha’s and mints and saffron whites and while you’re at it, thaw out that award-loosing pomegranate dark that is so near and dear to your heart and pipe it into something hollow.
Before you know it, your children will be rifling through your wallet to snatch your credit card and order themselves a pizza, while you remain oblivious to the setting sun and convince yourself you’re rational and can tell the difference between ten minutes and ten hours. After a few months of chocolate making, let’s face it, you just can’t.
But these last six months of melting chocolate have also taught me some things about myself that have made it all worthwhile. For one, there is no culinary feat that I now fear – since I started making chocolates, I’ve discovered my inner Martha Stewart and now think nothing of whipping out a three-tiered cake from scratch and frosting it with Swiss Meringue and whipping up the yolks for a side of crème brulee. Slicing a cylinder of tenderloin into a rectangular sheet of meat, stuffing it with household scraps and rolling in a pinwheel to roast and serve with sauce made from sage and wild berries is now my idea of fast food, and why would anyone buy rotisserie chicken in a store when it’s so easy to impale and roast your own with a bit of kosher salt and another essential countertop appliance. In short, the confidence that comes of making perfect chocolates turns every gastronomic test into a mere pop quiz, because I now know that all those time-consuming, complicated recipes are no match for a simple chipotle fleur de lis (unless of course the recipe calls for boiling lobsters alive which is where I draw the culinary line and let other people do it for me).
Another lesson that I’ve learned is that it is okay to gain a little weight if it means eating well, but it is not okay to keep on eating well if it means gaining too much weight. I have learned that I am like most every other human and that means that calories do count and so I now (roughly) count my chocolate calories. And because chocolate making requires extra exercise I am now in better shape than ever but I must suddenly pay attentionor in no time at all I could turn into a glob of chocolate-covered fat with scrawny arms and wobbly legs – but with a healthy dose of anti-oxidants slugging through my bloodstream. Which is to say, chocolate making does more to get you in touch with your body and to learn to love it and control it than any pilates class can ever do and it certainly tastes better.
Finally, I have discovered that my love for chocolates and chocolate making is far less about the substance itself than it is about my love for having fun in my own home and giving something wonderful to the people who surround me. Had I taken up bread baking or pickle packing, decorative tiling or building pirate ships in whisky bottles, it would pretty much be the same. I’d have the same fun and frustration, produce something to bring me pride and others a touch of joy, and gain that tender calm that comes of focusing on new creations and discoveries in whatever lies before me.
I still have far to go in my chocolate making adventures, and until I infuse my next fleur de lis shell with lime oil to balance the chipotle, or get that damn purple dye out of the airbrush and onto the mold for my lavender-chamomile oval swirls, my life will remain flawed and incomplete. But goals are what get us out of bed in the morning, whether the goal is a strong cup of coffee and the kid off to school or orchestrating a corporate merger so deftly that no one even notices when half the workforce disappears. Our goals drive us ever forward or at least veer us in wrong directions that often turn out far more interesting than our original destinations, give or take a broken heart or nervous breakdown as any country western song will tell us.
The goals of mastering chocolate are small and incremental, like the goals of getting through rocky times, raising a child or getting a college degree. We take it one small mold at a time until the mistakes can be re-melted and remolded, the disasters chopped up and scattered over ice cream, and the catastrophes turned into comedy to keep us all laughing so the pain can’t be sustained and life somehow gets better.
And so it is with Labor Day approaching that I’m going to remodel the Chocolate Covered Kitchen to take my readers beyond my adventures laboring with chocolate – which shall continue because frankly, now that I can do it, I like to keep doing it and just wait till I post my recipe for stuffed chocolate covered figs and other things to do with chocolate leftovers – you’ll go blind with hunger just to have a taste of them. But the truth is, there’s only so much I can write about chocolate without wanting to write about other ideas and adventures that my readers can relate to. (For example, just yesterday I became convinced that my neighbor was dead in her apartment, what with the pungent stench from her door and the volatile fight overheard just a few nights before – now who hasn’t been convinced there’s a corpse across the hall? Word of advice to all carnivores and cannibals, please refrigerate your meat, at least in the month of August.)
So in the weeks and months to come, I’ll be including more essays on learning to master new skills in the kitchen as well as the rest of the home, learning to survive when life turns against you when it’s not supposed to, and writing my way out of this chocolate covered corner I’ve painted myself into, which is to say, cleaning up messes, whatever or whoever the cause, while bringing the people around me a smile. Because let’s face it, just as long as we keep going in the face of despair and stay kind and loving to ourselves and those who love us, making a mess is always worth it. Just ask your nearest toddler. But not necessarily your neighbor, at least not until the coroner has gone . . .
So what’s your biggest mess that you managed to clean up? The most memorable mess left in a comment here or on Open Salon gets a free box of chocolates from The Chocolate Covered Kitchen! Assuming that it crosses no international borders or oceans or yellow police lines . . .