Thursday 21 August 2014

The Chocolate Challenge - Conching

Dear readers,

Eeeeek... over two months have passed without my posting on here! I'm so sorry! Life has been even busier than usual and very chocolaty too. Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know what I've been up to! Sorry to ruin the surprise, but I completed my first bar a couple of months ago and I'm now on my third batch of chocolate! I am learning a lot, and I have much to share with you!

The fourth stage of my home chocolate production is conching. There are two main purposes for this stage; flavour development and texture development. In essence, conching is the churning of the chocolate at an elevated temperature (ideally 40°C to 50°C) for an extended period of time.
I mentioned in my refining post that I bought a stone grinder because I would be able to carry out two stages of my chocolate production with it (grinding and conching). Although the machine has no temperature control, some heat is produced from the friction during the mixing. This keeps the chocolate at around 30°C which seems to be good enough to "conch" the chocolate!

I conched my first batch for 24 hours and despite the small particle size (from the grinding), it still felt a little dusty in the mouth and not very creamy. I decided to conch my second batch for 48 hours. The difference was quite significant! The extra conching time gave the chocolate a much smoother and creamier texture. This is due to the even distribution of the cocoa butter coating the sugar and cocoa mass particles. During the conching process there is also flavour development from the release of volatiles, which reduces the acidic and astringent notes. This makes a more rounded flavour and better overall quality chocolate. Delicious!

The next stage is probably the most tedious... tempering!

Tuesday 10 June 2014

The Chocolate Challenge - Refining

Dear readers,

Firstly, sorry for my absence from this blog! I know that I keep saying it but life has been crazily busy!

The third stage of my home chocolate production involves
refining. In order to make the chocolate smooth, the particle size of the ingredients must be below 20 microns; which is undetectable by the tongue. It's actually quite difficult to get hold of equipment which will grind the cocoa beans (and sugar) to this size. I discussed refining with Willie Harcout-Cooze and he recommended a small machine which he uses to produce small batches of chocolate when sampling new cocoa beans.

I decided to go for it and buy the machine! It is a stone grinder for Indian cooking. It wasn't too expensive, and I managed to convince my father to buy it for me as a combined late birthday and Christmas present! I figured that since I would be able to carry out two key stages of the chocolate processing (refining and conching) in the one machine, it would be well worth it.

Firstly, I put the roasted and winnowed beans into a standard food processor to turn the beans into a paste. I also used a hair dryer to melt the cocoa butter in the beans. Then I added the paste to the stone grinder. This, in my opinion, is where the magic really happens in chocolate production. This is the point at which the cocoa beans turn into chocolate; the gorgeous glossy cocoa liquor! The friction in the machine produces some heat which helps keep the ground beans liquid.

It took a few hours for the chocolate to lose all of its graininess (particles less than 20 microns) and became smooth. However, further flavour and texture development of the chocolate is required which is achieved by the conching process.

Monday 5 May 2014

The Chocolate Challenge - Winnowing

Dear readers,

The second stage of my home chocolate production is winnowing the roasted beans. Winnowing involves the removal of the shell and can be carried out before or after roasting and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Since the shell is very difficult to remove before roasting and would require some form of pre-treatment, I decided to roast my beans first. The major disadvantages of winnowing post-roasting is that some of the cocoa butter is lost in the shell and more energy is required to roast the beans. However, I have plans for my shells so there is no loss of product!

I simply cracked the beans and separated the shells using my hands. This can be quite tedious and time consuming, but it was fine for a small batch of 1kg. I did, however, suffer a minor injury of a sharp piece of shell underneath my thumbnail!

Another method involves cracking the beans and shells together and using a fan or hairdryer to blow the lightweight broken shells away from the broken nibs. I decided not to do this because I wanted to save all of the shells.

Monday 28 April 2014

The Chocolate Challenge - Roasting

Dear readers,

The first stage of my home chocolate production (after sourcing already-fermented beans) is roasting.

At La Iguana Chocolate, they roast their cacao beans in a pot over a fire and stir constantly for 10 to 20 minutes until they hear the beans "pop". I asked Jorge (the eldest son of the family) how I should roast the beans at home. I asked if I should use a frying pan and wait for the "pop" and he replied...

"yes, do add a little of water just to wet the bean no make a sopa OK, good luck".

Following Jorge's advice, I added a splash of water to the beans in the frying pan and turned the heat up high, stirring constantly. Once I started to hear the loud "pops", I turned the heat off and continued stirring the beans until the popping stopped (one has to be careful; they can move when they pop so it might be an idea to use a splash guard). The aroma that came from the beans was extraordinary! The whole house smelt of brownies. I went out and came back a few hours later and the whole house still smelt of brownies; it was incredible! I definitely recommend roasting a few cocoa beans before a house viewing instead of baking bread. I'm sure it will be much more effective!

Slightly-wet beans before heating

Beans during the "roasting"

I recently attended the Food And Drink Expo in Birmingham and met Willie Harcout-Cooze from Willie's Cacao. I spoke to him about roasting and he said that I should not do it in a frying pan because the beans should not be exposed to direct heat. He recommended that I roast them in an oven on a baking tray with some baking paper. However, at this point I had already roasted most of my beans using Jorge's method. I will definitely try roasting the beans in the oven next time!

Sunday 13 April 2014

Chick Macarons with a Cherry Sauce - Happy 4th Birthday to my blog!

Dear readers,

Chicken in a Cherry Sauce has just turned four!

Thanks so much to you, my readers, who have supported this blog! I really enjoy being part of the online food blogging community; there are so many beautiful and inspirational blogs out there! I would like to give extra special thanks to those of you who regularly visit my blog despite my sometimes infrequent posting. I really appreciate your patience and loyalty!

To celebrate I decided to make some "Chicks with a Cherry Sauce" in the form of macarons sandwiched with cherry sauce. I thought that this would also fit quite well with Easter coming up! They didn't turn out quite as uniform as my Champagne Macarons (hence I haven't photographed many of them). However, this could be considered as a part of their character. I think that I got lucky with my success on the Champagne Macarons - these chick macarons took three attempts to get right! Clearly I have yet to master the art of making macarons.

I have been a little lazy with these and left the shell plain almond flavour with a very basic filling of cherry jam! Nonetheless, I think that these simple flavours go well together.

As with my Champagne Macarons, I used the same base recipe that I developed with my Kaffir Lime and Coconut Macarons.

Chick Macarons with a Cherry Sauce
45g egg white (preferably aged for 2 days at room temperature)
70g + 20g icing sugar
50g ground almonds
22g caster sugar
Yellow food colouring (powder or gel - the amount will vary depending on the type used)
Black icing
100g cherry jam

This recipe will make 16 macarons (32 shells).

Sieve the almonds and 70g of icing sugar together. Whisk the egg whites until they become stiff, then add the caster sugar and food colouring and whisk until stiff again. Fold in the sieved icing sugar and ground almonds. Stir a few times until the batter has a runny consistency. Pour the mixture into a piping bag and pipe circles of the mixture onto silicone baking sheets. Tap the baking tray gently on a flat surface to help the circles flatten and remove excess air. Leave to rest for 45 minutes until the tops become matte and dry. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Place the macarons in the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 140°C. Place a wooden spoon in the door of the oven to hold it ajar for the duration of the cooking. Bake for 20 minutes, then set aside to cool before removing from the baking sheet.

Add a few drops of water and orange food colouring to create an icing dough. Roll it out and cut out small triangles for the beaks. Add a little more water to the leftover icing and use that to glue the beaks to half of the macaron shells. Finish the decoration using black icing for the eyes.

Sandwich the chick face shells and the plain shells together with cherry jam.

Do not use gel icing for the eyes! I had just finished decorating them on a Sunday evening when it started to get dark and the eyes were still wet so I left them to dry. A week later, the eyes were still wet. So I had to be quite careful in handling them so that I didn't smudge the eyes and cover the macarons with black icing!

I did research Chick Macarons before I made mine and found some beautiful and adorable creations. I particularly like these that were made by Raspberri Cupcakes. As one may see, I found the photographs inspiring!

atch out... the chicks might lay a Cadbury's Mini Egg while you're not looking...

Wednesday 2 April 2014

The Chocolate Challenge - Processing Chocolate from Bean to Bar at Home

Dear readers,

Having been inspired by the improvisation at La Iguana and my desire for understanding the chocolate production process, I have decided to attempt the processing of my own chocolate at home
from bean to bar. Sadly, I don't have access to fresh cacao beans here in England. Therefore, I will have to omit the first few steps (the harvesting, fermenting and drying of the beans). Unfortunately, I do not have enough beans from La Iguana to carry out this challenge; so I have bought a separate 1kg batch of fermented, unroasted Criollo beans from South America. The remaining steps I intend to carry out to process a ~70% cacao dark chocolate bar will include:

1. Roasting
This should be one of the most straightforward stages. There are two main techniques which I can carry out at home for this step without having access to specialist equipment.

2. Winnowing
This is, effectively, the removal of the shells of the cacao beans once they have been roasted. There are, again, two main techniques for this method which should be feasible at home.

3. Refining
This is the first step that will be quite challenging since it will require specialist equipment. The size of the cacao particles will need to be below 20 microns in size in order for them to be undetectable by the tongue. It will be difficult to track down a refiner which I can use at home to get the particles to this size!

4. Conching
Once I have refined the cacao and added the sugar, the chocolate then needs to go through the conching process. I anticipate that this will be the most difficult stage of the home chocolate processing. It involves the churning of the chocolate at a continuous speed and elevated temperature for a minimum of 12 hours. I have doubts about my ability to complete this stage!

5. Tempering
I have already tempered chocolate, but not at home. There are three techniques for tempering; the marble method, the seeding method and the water bowl method. If I manage to track down a slab of marble, then I will attempt marble tempering!

6. Moulding
This should be simple enough, however, it depends on how I wish my chocolate to be moulded. This will involve either searching for a suitable mould or trying to create one myself.

Before I carry out any of the processes, I plan to read about home chocolate processing as much as possible. I, of course, expect to come across plenty of bumps along the way but this is all part of the learning process. I can only hope that I will manage to overcome these obstacles so that I can complete the challenge and taste my own homemade chocolate!

If anyone has any advice or ideas then please do share them!

Thursday 13 March 2014

Vosges Haut Chocolat Chocolate Bar Review

Dear readers,

I first discovered Vosges Haut Chocolat when I came across Mo's Dark Bacon Bar in a local supermarket in Davis, California. At work, I have been co-writing an article about innovative new confectionery products for Kennedy's Confection Magazine each month. During my searches I came across Vosges again and I have fallen in love! Some of their bars sounded really interesting and unusual and nothing like I had tried before.

I decided that I had to try some of them. I checked the cost of international shipping and was quite shocked to find that it was $75! When I used to live in California and posted things to friends at home it cost around $20. I have a friend who lives in Los Angeles so I asked him if he could do me a huge favour by going to a Vosges Haut Chocolat store in Beverly Hills, buying me some of these incredible bars and posting them to me and reimburse him. He happily accepted this assignment and, through the power of today's technology, he included me in the shopping experience by sending various images of the inside the store. We also exchanged a few phone calls through Viber.

There was an offer of 6 bars for the price of 5, so he bought the Effie and Katniss bars from their "Hunger Games Catching Fire" collection and the Matcha Green Tea, Reishi Mushroom & Walnut, Açai & Goldenberry, and Coconut Ash & Banana bars from their "Super Dark" collection. This came to a total of $37.50 which was expensive but I felt that it was worth it. He posted them and told me that it cost a whopping $52.50! I was shocked but it was too late to go back by then. I transferred the money - $90 for six 85g chocolate bars! This was painful, but I managed to justify it to myself because I have been lucky enough to receive many free chocolate samples throughout my career.

 The Effie Bar

Of course, the Effie Trinket bar had to contain pink and purple! I was a little unsure about combining dark chocolate with the subtle flavours of strawberry and violet but it works surprisingly well and the dark chocolate does not overpower the other flavours. There are subtle hints of both as one chews through the delicious dark chocolate. Effie would be proud! I would say, however, that the packaging could be a little more exciting and include a photo or, even better, an illustration of the character.
The Katniss Bar

This is the one that I was most excited about and I was not disappointed! The creaminess of the milk chocolate was a perfect match for the salty and smoky chunks of bacon. It was great to have something to chew on rather than just have the flavour running through the chocolate. I love the idea of putting pork and apple in a chocolate bar – I’m sure that wild turkey, squirrel or rabbit wouldn’t have gone down as well (for those of you who haven't read the Hunger Games, Katniss frequently hunted these animals)! Like every form of dried apple which I have tried in my experience, it softened and got a little stuck in the teeth on consumption. I assume that this is unavoidable, however, I would prefer more apple flavour in the bar as it was minimal. Again, I think that the packaging could be more exciting with an illustration of Katniss on the front rather than one block of colour.

 The Super Dark Matcha Green Tea, Spirulina and Cocoa Nib Bar

Although I’m not the greatest fan of green tea, Vosges have really hit the nail on the head with this bar. The balance of green tea flavour with the dark chocolate works really well and the bar is enhanced by a crunchy texture from the cacao nibs. Spirulina isn’t particularly tasty, so it’s great that I can’t detect this flavour in the bar (I think that the main reason for its presence is for the “super food” properties). I think the packaging is stunning!

The Super Dark Reishi Mushroom and Walnut Bar 

I was really excited to try this one, too. I love the idea of mixing savoury with sweet. I tried a cocktail with truffle flavour recently and adored it! I was really looking forward to tasting mushroom with chocolate but, to my disappointment, I couldn’t detect any mushroom flavour at all. I admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what to look for with the Reishi mushroom flavour. I could sense a subtle savoury note, but, ultimately, all I could taste was the dark chocolate with some walnut notes. Nonetheless, the bar was delicious. The dark chocolate was very smooth and flavoursome and the walnuts gave a wonderful nutty and earthy flavour and texture. If it were just a “walnut and dark chocolate bar”, I’d give it 10 out of 10, but it isn’t. I would deduct 3 for the total lack of mushroom flavour. I do like the packaging but I would prefer some walnuts on there, too.

The Super Dark Coconut Ash and Banana Bar 

Since the packaging states "Sri Lankan coconut" as well as "charcoal coconut ash" and has images of coconut pieces as well as ash, one would assume that this bar contained coconut. Upon trying the bar, banana was all I could taste with the dark chocolate. I checked the ingredients list and it read coconut ash and no other form of coconut. I think that, although I find the packaging very artistic and eye-catching, it is also a little deceiving. Like the spirulina, I think that the coconut ash is there purely for the "super food" properties. I did enjoy the subtle, natural banana flavour in this bar, but I would have preferred a little coconut flavour and texture.

The Super Dark Açai and Goldenberry Bar

I admit that I’m not familiar with the flavour of açai but I expected it to be quite tart, like the physalis. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the acidity of the fruits with the bitter dark chocolate. The flavours work really well together and give the bar a refreshing zing, different from that of citrus. I think that the packaging is very attractive along with the rest of the collection.

 I'm fascinated by many of the products from Vosges and wish that I could try them all. I hope that they expand their business to the UK at some point. I have added these bars to my mini "Chocolate Library" which I keep in a shoebox. I look forward to expanding my collection as I discover more exciting chocolate bars!

Sunday 2 March 2014

Rabot 1745 - Borough Market, London

Dear readers,

The day after I got back from Costa Rica I visited the new Hotel Chocolat restaurant in Borough Market - Rabot 1745. It was the perfect way to complete my holiday and catch up with friends, over more chocolate! Every dish contains cacao (roasted cocoa beans) in some form or other. Apparently cacao has been used in savoury cuisine far longer that it has with confectionery. I already knew that chocolate can be very versatile, but I was keen to see how cacao works in savoury dishes too.

We started the meal with a cacao bean tasting. The beans were from Vietnam and tasted quite different from those that I had been eating for the previous couple of weeks at La Iguana. I happened to have some of my roasted beans from La Iguana in my bag and it was great to be able to compare them.

After my experience with the delicious flavours of the fresh cacao pulp at La Iguana, there was no contest when it came to deciding which drink to order; the Fresh Cacao Bellini. The taste wasn't the same as that of the exotic mangosteen flavour that I experienced in Costa Rica but it was still delicious, especially with the bubbles! Apparently different varieties of cacao pods have different exotic fruit flavours in the pulp such as mango; I can't wait to try some more!

We were offered a complementary amuse-bouche of butternut squash soup served with cacao buttered and nibbed bread. This was a lovely surprise and great way to warm up the palate.

For my starter I chose the Scallop Salad.  This included Seared Scottish scallops, beet carpaccio, apple-beet matchsticks, wintercress leaves, curried nib oil and a horseradish white chocolate condiment. This was a great collection of flavours and textures.

For my main I ordered the Creole Monkfish. This dish consisted of Cacao-creole spiced Cornish monkfish, roasted and served with caramelised fennel and artichoke, winter greens and Marcona almond purée. This was another intriguing collection of textures and flavours; beautifully cooked monkfish with a variety of spices and the smooth almond paste. I mopped up every last residue!

For dessert, I ordered the Coconut Milk and Rum Panna Cotta. This was served with a fresh papaya and mango salsa and a small cacao-nibbed biscuit. There was a subtle warmth from the rum and the creamy flavours of the rum and coconut melted over the tongue with each spoonful. This was delectable, as I'd hoped it would be!

I ended the meal with a Saint Lucian Hot Chocolate. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal at Rabot 1745. The service was faultless - we were attended to our every need yet we never felt hassled. I can't wait to return and try some of the other dishes (and drinks)!