Here’s a little secret you may not know about me: I sometimes fantasize about becoming a chocolatier.
It’s not so much that I love eating the chocolate. When it comes to guilty pleasures and temptations, believe it or not, chocolate is not at the top of my list. What tempts me: wine, cheese and fresh bread. Yes, I think I was likely French in a former life. But chocolate isn’t too far down that list, especially really rich, dark, quality chocolate.
I love the crafting of it more than anything. I love being able to take this simple ingredient and turn it into all sorts of pretty, scrumptious marvels.
|Salted Almond Toffee, bagged and ready for gift giving
I think my love of candy-making goes back to my childhood. My grandma, “Nana”, used to make candies at the holidays, not just Christmas but Easter and Valentine’s Day as well. This meant gathering in the warm kitchen, melting the chocolate, mixing up the fondant, carefully painting delicate molds, and assembling the various candies. Then we would patiently wait, listening to Christmas carols playing in the background, as the first chocolates cooled and we could taste the fruits of our labor.
Several years ago, Nana sent me a big box in the mail at Christmas. I wasn’t expecting anything and opened it cautiously. Lovingly packed inside were all of her candy molds, tools and recipe book. I was a little disappointed to learn that it was a Wilton recipe book she was working from all those years. Here I thought she was a chocolate magician.
But I eagerly took up the challenge and tried my hand at candy-making. Like all first attempts, it wasn’t great. I followed the Wilton recipe book and the result was, in a word, average. As with any recipe I try, though, I had to deviate and experiment until the result has morphed so completely that it’s barely recognizable from the original recipe.
|Finished Cherry Zinfandel Truffles
So over these many years of making chocolates at the holidays, I have experimented, twisted, and shaped the candy into something that is entirely and completely my own. Gone are the molds and the Wilton recipe book, instead I focus on luxurious, gourmet-quality chocolate truffles for the most part. And I have to say that this year is my best year ever.
Today, I am going to share with you some of my favorite candy recipes that are entirely my own. Let me preface this by saying that these recipes are not at all in keeping with my focus on healthy, calorie-friendly meals. These are very rich treats that are only meant for occasional consumption and even then in moderation. The beauty of making chocolate at the holidays is that I give it all away as gifts. I generally spend about $80 on ingredients and packaging supplies, and this yields enough candy to serve as presents for the office, my friends and family.
First, I will share a couple of non-truffle recipes with you. These are much easier and less time-consuming to prepare. Note that most recipes require a double boiler. If you don’t have a double boiler, simply use a glass bowl over a pot of water, it works just as well and many times even better.
- Double boiler
- Rubber spatula
- Nonstick baking sheet
- 2 bags white chocolate chips
- 1 giant candy cane stick (I believe they’re called Big Jim’s, you can also substitute a box of peppermint candy canes, but the stick is much cheaper)
Take the wrapper off the candy, put it in a resealable plastic bag and pound with a hammer or mallet until it is in small pieces. Fill the bottom pan of the double boiler about 1/3 of the way full with water. Put the chocolate chips in the top pan and turn the burner to medium. Put the crushed candy into a colander and sift it over the chocolate, letting the finer crumbs and dust combine with the chocolate and the larger chunks remain in the colander — set these aside. Use the rubber spatula to stir the chocolate and candy until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Pour onto the baking sheet and use the spatula to spread it out into an even layer. Take the remaining candy pieces from the colander and sprinkle them over the top, lightly pressing them into the chocolate so that they will stick. Put in the fridge to cool completely. Break into chunks and store in airtight containers or bags.
|Toffee boiling away – not quite dark enough yet!
Salted Almond Toffee
- Candy thermometer
- Rubber spatula
- 13×9 pyrex baking dish
- 1 pound unsalted butter
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 cup chopped almonds
- 1 bag dark chocolate chunks or chips (I think the chunks look nicer in the finished product)
- Sea salt
Spread the almonds and chocolate evenly over the bottom of the baking dish and set aside. Heat the butter and sugars in the saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until it reaches a boil. Let it continue to boil, without stirring, until it reaches 300F degrees. (Note that I don’t always trust my candy thermometer here as I’ve had it burn on me before, so I’ve become adept at recognizing the color and texture that tell me it’s ready. This only comes after practice, so don’t expect to be able to spot this right away, but the mixture should be a dark amber in color and will be thick, glossy and sort of balling up on itself – in other words, pulling from the side of the pan and even itself.) Once the mixture has reached this stage, pour it over the nuts and chocolate in the baking dish, using the spatula to spread it in an even layer. Sprinkle sea salt over the top of the mixture – usually a teaspoon is enough, you don’t want it to be too salty. Do not refrigerate, just let it cool on the counter or table. Once completely cooled and hard, break into chunks with a knife and store it in airtight containers or bags.
- Double boiler
- Rubber spatula
- 13×9 baking dish
- Waxed paper
- Baking sheets
- 2 very narrow skewers (I actually use turkey lacers, they work even better than the candy dipping tool from the store)
Truffles are not for the faint of heart or the under-confident chef. They are extremely time-consuming and can be a little tricky. If you are up for it, though, the reward is absolutely delightful. And rolling the truffles is something that kids can easily help with if you’re looking for a family activity.
A truffle consists of some sort of mixture — usually either a ganache or fondant base — that is rolled into balls then dipped in chocolate. I mostly use a ganache which can be very tricky to master for if it’s too hard then it won’t roll into balls and if it’s too soft then it just falls apart in your hands. I have come up with what I consider to be the perfect basic formula for a chocolate ganache:
|Ganache for Cherry Zinfandel Truffle
Basic Truffle Ganache Recipe
- 1.5 pounds of extra dark (63% cacao or higher)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons butter
This will yield about 90 truffles. To create different flavors, I then adjust the amount of cream I add — see below for specific ideas and examples.
The ganache needs to be melted in the top of a double boiler until completely smooth, then pour it in the pyrex baking dish, smooth it with the rubber spatula, and cover and chill until completely firm (I chill them overnight). Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Make sure your hands are clean and completely dry. Use a melon baller or small scoop to create balls no larger than 3/4″ – 1″ in diameter, rolling them smooth in your palms, and place on the waxed paper. The longer you do this, the more the chocolate residue gets on your hands, the softer the ganache becomes when you try to work it, and the more it falls apart in your hands. So when you see more chocolate sticking to your fingers then forming into the balls, stop and wash your hands – with soap to remove the chocolate oils – then dry them completely. I keep a bag of ice in my freezer that I also then chill my hands on before returning the task of rolling.
Once the balls are rolled, put the baking sheet in the freezer and let them completely freeze. Melt 2 bags of extra dark (63% cacao or more) chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler with 1 tbsp unsalted butter and 1 tbsp chopped parafin wax (these give the chocolate coating a little gloss and thin it out a little to make it easier for dipping). Take 20 of the rolled balls out of the freezer at a time, otherwise they soften too much before dipping.
Hold a skewer in each hand, place a ball on one skewer. Dip it in the melted chocolate. Tap the skewer gently on the side of the pan and let the excess chocolate drip off. Place the dipped truffle on the waxed paper, using the skewer in your other hand to help release the truffle off the dipping skewer. If you wish to top the truffle with anything decorative (see notes for each recipe below), do it before the chocolate dries. Let dry completely – refrigerate if necessary – then store in an airtight container.
Here are a few of my ganache creations this year, the preparation and dipping procedure is the same as outlined above:
Chili Chocolate Truffle Ganache
Basic ganache recipe plus 2 tsp crushed red chili pepper flakes. Once the truffles are dipped, for decoration dust the top with a very, very small amount of cayenne pepper.
Tarragon Merlot Truffle Ganache
Alter the basic ganache recipe by reducing the amount of cream to 1 cup, then add 1 cup quality merlot wine and 3 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon. Once the truffles are dipped, for decoration top each truffle with a small piece of tarragon.
Mandarin Orange Truffle Ganache
Zest 3 mandarin oranges to add to the ganache. Juice the oranges then add heavy whipping cream until it totals 2 cups of liquid. Use this instead of the 2 cups of cream called for in the basic ganache recipe, the rest of the recipe remains the same. Once the truffles are dipped, for decoration top each truffle with a sprinkling of dried orange zest.
Cherry Zinfandel Truffle Ganache
Alter the basic ganache recipe by reducing the amount of cream to 1/2 cup, then add 1 cup quality zinfandel wine and 1 bag of dried Trader Joe’s dried sweet cherries finely chopped (save 1/4 cup of these chopped dried sweet cherries). Once the truffles are dipped, for decoration top each truffle with a piece of the dried cherries that you set aside.
Salted Caramel Truffle Ganache
Alter the basic ganache recipe by eliminating the butter and cream, then add 2 jars of Trader Joe’s Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce. Once the truffles are dipped, for decoration top each truffle with a sprinkling of coarse sea salt.