When Mary Poppins told her precocious charges, Jane and Michael, that she was “practically perfect in every way,” she added this caveat, “If I had a fault it would never dare show.” Then she proceeded to show just how obsessive compulsive, defiant and dependent upon magical thinking she actually was. Imperfection is, after all, essential to perfection. Just ask Nanny McPhee.
And so it is with chocolates. Of course, I perpetually forget this detail in my quest to replicate two dollar molded chocolates for the cost of a gum ball and get it all done in between episodes of Glee and The Good Wife. And so it was the other night when I realized that Bob, the Monkey’s Paw (he keeps coming back), was arriving from Texas for a visit to the Emerald City and there wasn’t a chocolate in sight.
Worse, I had just launched a blog and announced to the world that I was going to be posting updates about my efforts to learn chocolate making. Having done so, I was left with two alternatives: make chocolates, or make up making chocolates. It was hard to decide which of the two could be more fun, but the former, actually making them, would at least give me something to enjoy while pondering why Julianna Margulies doesn’t do something to tone down the Michael Jackson look and how I could possibly get a Kalinda and Eli Gold in my life (and on my side).
So despite my persistent desire to do anything other than what it is I should be doing, I respectfully acknowledged my laziness as if it were a treasured friend, assured my royal laziness that I would soon return to give it the unrelenting attention it so demands, and hauled my ass off the sofa and polished the chocolate molds.
I decided I’d make three and a half batches. Dark black raspberry-filled hearts, fiery fleur-de-lis, saffron fans, and salted saffron crowns. I set out three bowls, dumped a cup of Guittard white chocolate in one, bittersweet in another and dark chocolate in the third. I sliced a tablespoon of butter into each bowl, and then got out three Pyrex measuring cups, poured half a cup of heavy cream into each, and then got out the flavorings. Half a teaspoon of saffron and a tablespoon of honey went into one of the cups of cream and was set beside the white chocolate. A big dollop of seedless black raspberry preserves was dropped into the bittersweet chocolate where it looked like a big mistake. Then I got the chipotle.
Flash back to last week. The chipotle peppers came in a can, packed in adobo sauce. You can’t buy them in a practical size. They only come in cans the size of doorstops, which hold far too much for anyone north of the border to use up, so I’d pureed them with an emulsion blender. I could have used a regular blender but that would have been harder to clean and not as much fun. Emulsion blenders are very fun, like stirring something with a high-speed electric-powered blade. Once you get started, it’s not easy to stop.
After I’d been restrained from pureeing everything in the pantry and forced to put the emulsion blender down before we ended up eating pureed sushi, I poured the chipotle into an ice cube tray and froze the spicy puree. Then I waited for someone to come along and throw them into their gin and tonic. (It still hasn’t happened but it’s just a matter of time.)
Flash forward to day before yesterday, a cube of chipotle zapped in the microwave long enough to melt and be tossed in a bowl of chocolate. There I was, with these three bowls of soon-to-be ganache staring up at me like high school science projects waiting to be mixed, piped and documented, when some absolutely useless information slips into my head and sticks there, like a post-it note that won’t come off but keeps reminding me of pending doom. I set up the double boiler, a six quart pan with an inch of water and a Pyrex bowl stuck on top. I get out the array of various spatulas and scrapers, the meat mallet for pounding out the air bubbles and the laser thermometer. But there’s that fuzzy ugly thought, gnawing away at me.
“I can’t afford to keep buying chocolate,” it says, “I should be investing in whole grains.” “I shouldn’t have spent so much on that hair cut, I don’t even like it, it makes me look like a housewife from Nebraska.” “I should stop telling potential employers I have a Ph.D., it disqualifies me for typing.” “Do people even use words like typing anymore? Does it date me? At least something does.” “I hope that new wrinkle cream makes me look twenty-five, maybe I should get a boob job.” I dumped a pound of chocolate into the Pyrex bowl to melt it for molding, and decided to check the bank balance. That was stupid. Never examine your financial status when in the middle of making chocolates. It’s like interrupting love-making to mop the floors. Totally ruins the moment.
I always start these financial worries with images of someone at the bank monitoring my every purchase and shaking their head in disgust. “What has she bought this time?” I hear one purchase monitor ask the other. “Looks like she shot her grocery budget again for another jar of face cream,” the other one responds. “Why doesn’t she just stick her head in a shrink wrap machine and be done with it?” the first one asks rhetorically, laughing cruelly. Then Suze Orman joins in and my whole head is swimming with people beating me up for not mastering money. “But I maintained my FICO score,” I wail, “and I don’t have a single debt!” That’s when Donald Trump shows up and makes it clear that that’s my problem.
“Get out!” I scream at the whole lot of them – “Out, out, out of my kitchen! I want my Zen back!” Then suddenly, there’s silence. The melting chocolate I’d been stirring had reached 115 degrees and I realized if I’d let my mind stray a moment longer, I’d have ruined the whole damned batch.
What was that I was saying about chocolate just the other day? That it’s the Be Here Now of chocolate making that makes it impossible to worry? Have I already blown it? And what will Bob think of me if he finds out I can’t make a decent piece of candy? Will he stop coming back? Whoa, no, return to the chocolate, no more stray thoughts, no more worries. Be Here Now.
While the melted chocolate cooled to 88 degrees, I heated the saffron-infused cream in the microwave and poured it over the white chocolate. A few minutes longer and I was stirring the melting white chocolate into a thick, rich ganache. It smelled heavenly.
The temperature on the melted chocolate reached 92 and I knew I had to keep a close eye on it. Once it reaches that point, it gets all exponential on me and falls faster than the housing market. When it hit 88, I put it back on the pot of warm water and brought it back to 92. That’s how it’s done. At least my way. It’s tricky business, and after reading many books I’ve concluded, this is working for me now, keep it simple. In fact, to be honest, sometimes I even skip bringing it back up to 92 and just pour it at 88. So far it’s worked.
I poured two molds with chocolate, sprinkling ginger-flavored salt in one, and piping them both with the luscious saffron ganache. But I must have over-filled them all, because when I topped them off with the final layer of chocolate to seal them, the yellow filling peaked right through. I never should have tried to multi-task when I knew I had to focus. So I decided to cover up my error with another error. I poured on even more chocolate, smothering the molds. I knew the pros would be disgraced at my sloppy and amateurish effort, but time was running out.
When I unmolded the chocolates, every piece had big jagged edges like some three dimensional jig saw puzzle. The bright, perfectly tempered chocolate was so imperfectly molded that I thought the only thing to do was throw them away and never make another chocolate again. But they looked so good.
So I took out a paring knife and trimmed each piece as best as I could. I found that if I took off my glasses I could hardly even see the imperfections. That made it better, like putting on makeup with the lights down low. Then my daughter came into the kitchen and saw what I was doing, but before I could explain, she grabbed a piece and stuffed it into her mouth. And then another. And another. I slapped her hand away before she could snatch another piece. And then it dawned on me. She saw the edges. She knew they weren’t supposed to be there. But she didn’t care.
And neither would anyone else who ate them, I suddenly realized. I was the only one who was holding myself to the standards of the masters, instead of the standards of my guests. “Never apologize,” Julia Child had said, paraphrasing Mary Poppins. Well, I wasn’t sure I would ever get to that state of perfect unapologetic nirvana, but I knew my imperfect chocolates were absolutely perfect.
I didn’t have time to finish the other two batches. Another failing. But I covered the ganaches tightly, put them in the fridge to be finished the following day and cleaned up the mess. I slipped a couple into my mouth – a saffron fan and a salted saffron crown. And then I realized. I love saying “salted saffron,” but I don’t really love eating it. But that’s okay, next time I’ll just skip the salt. I served the chocolates with tea and again after dinner and they all turned out to be delicious. And no one even seemed to notice the imperfect edges. After all, friends never really do.