Aphrodisiac, guilty pleasure, ancient cure for fatigue; chocolate is one of mankind’s greatest and most delicious vices. Whether dusted atop a cappuccino, encasing a strawberry or shining from shelves in thick, decisive blocks, there are few able to say no to the stuff.
Chocolate’s pulling power undeniably sets it apart from other types of confectionary. Rich, sensual, and somehow impossibly warming, it’s not hard to see why so many are obsessed with it. But, believe it or not, there are reasons why the world is so keen on cocoa bean goodness. It’s science...
Yes, science: the underpinning strain of logic that holds the modern world together. And, as we’ve seen in the hugely popular series Breaking Bad, a way we can play with chemicals to elicit certain responses in people’s brains. Whilst chocolate is nothing as destructive or illegal as Walter White’s wares, it does tickle certain chemical fancies inside us that gives off the sensation of, well, pure heaven.
Chocolate making then is as much alchemy as it is cookery; a tie most keenly felt when it comes to the tasting part. Walt may be a chemistry teacher instead of a chef, but really, chemistry and cookery aren’t so different. Here’s what our addiction to Breaking Bad taught us about our addiction to chocolate, and how we can be better at making it.
There is a huge difference between calling yourself a chocolate maker and a chocolatier. The former works at buying cocoa beans, roasting them and grinding them into chocolate, whereas the latter buys this chocolate, or, ‘couverture’ as it’s known in the industry, and uses it to make other chocolate treats like truffles and flavoured bars. On your first chocolate making class, chances are you’ll be taking on the role of an amateur chocolatier, and start by learning how to temper chocolate. Tempering chocolate is the process of melting already made chocolate so that you can use it as an ingredient for something else.
Like Walt in his lab, keeping things at the right temperature is integral to success of cooking anything right. We can perfectly understand Walt’s frustration at Jesse, his assistant’s early carelessness with keeping things at the right temperature: chocolate should best be tempered at normal room temperature, which is around 20-22°C, with humidity below 50%. Most chocolate will temper perfectly if it’s initially melted at 43°C, since cocoa butter, the main ingredient affected by temperature, will melt perfectly exactly at that temperature. After that, you’ll need to cool it all down to about 30°C, and might need to repeat this cycle depending on how your chocolate turns out. Do it wrong, you’ll end up with uneven crystals of chocolate. Uneven crystals? Sounds familiar...
And, like Walt’s crystalline creations, adding even the slightest amount of water can completely throw your mixture. The tiniest drop of unwanted moisture can cause the chocolate to seize up, and turn into a slushy, dark sort of fudge. Remember, cooking food is just a way of manipulating the chemical makeup of your ingredients, whether it’s by adding heat, freezing them, or mixing them together. Any budding chocolatier worth their salted caramel will be savvy to the chemistry of chocolate, and like Walt’s successful crystal blue nuggets, this will definitely show in your finished work.
Like Walt, it’s chemistry that draws us to our craft. And chocolate’s seductive chemistry is no secret. Cocoa powder contains theobromine, an alkaloid found in plants, which is a group of chemicals that have pronounced physiological effects on humans. Some, in fact, that are similar to those produced by amphetamines, which leads us right up Walt’s alley.
Next to other alkaloids such as cocaine, nicotine and caffeine, the effects of chemicals in cocoa powder are pretty weak. Particularly when you consider that most chocolate is mixed with butter, sugar and other flavours before it’s mixed into confectionary. Still, most of us will attest to getting a little lift after eating some chocolate, which is later cited as the reason why they’ve eaten a whole block in one go.
Chocolate also contains caffeine, which is a stimulant acting on the receptors in the brain that release pleasure-producing chemicals. And then there’s phenylethylamine, also known as the ‘love drug’, as it releases the same chemicals into the body as when we’re in love. These include dopamine and serotonin, chemicals responsible for feelings of reward, happiness, and even arousal. Perhaps this explains how Hallmark has capitalised the stuff to head their ever-persistent Valentine’s Day campaign.
‘But I’m doing it for love!’
Whilst our reasons for getting finicky with chemistry are nowhere near as dark or dramatic as Walt’s, the process is quite technique sensitive, and can be pretty trying on the patience. Tempering chocolate is a many staged cycle of warming and cooling your mixture at just the right temperature, as well as checking it’s been done right by smearing the chocolate onto a thin piece of waxed paper or parchment, waiting until it’s dry and then peeling it from the paper. If you can’t, you’ll need to start over.
But we aren’t out of the woods just yet. Depending on what you’d like to do with your chocolate, once it’s tempered you’ll need to embark on a particular recipe tied to a specific sweet treat. Want to make truffles? You’ll probably need to make ganache, a creamy filling that commonly graces the insides of a truffle, or whatever else you’d like to put inside. You’ll need to learn how to use tools like piping bags, and have a steady hand when it’s time to dip your creations in your tempered chocolate. Filled treats? You’ll need to get a handle on using chocolate moulds, figure how thick to make your shells and ensure your mixture sets evenly.
It can be exhausting, but there’s nothing quite like enjoying the fruit, or erm, chocolate, of your labour after a hard day in the kitchen. Walt may be cooking to help the ones he loves, but we’re just doing it to feed our own love of chocolate.
Instead of breaking bad, why not break into a delicious habit and learn how to whip up your own chocolates? Take a look at the chocolate courses we’ve got on offer and set your inner chocolatier free!
Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.