Advice from Experts

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with two true chocolate experts. The first was Chloe Doutre-Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur: For Everyone With a Passion for Chocolate. We sat at Dandelion in San Francisco, where she was doing a book signing on her way up to the Northwest Chocolate Festival last weekend.

I felt honored to spend some time talking to Chloe about her vast experience with chocolate. I sat down with a Mission hot chocolate from Dandelion and when the chocolate-making staff at Dandelion joined us, I felt totally surrounded by experts. I had the opportunity to show them my bean to bar activities at home, and we discussed roasting and winnowing issues.

Landen and Chloe Doutre-Roussel

The second expert was Tad Van Leer. I’ll go into detail about my conversation with Mr. Van Leer – I learned a lot! Mr. Van Leer grew up and worked in his family’s chocolate manufacturing company, Van Leer Chocolate, until selling to Barry Callebaut in 1999, and more recently worked as General Manager of J. Emanuel Chocolatier, in Chester, NJ. His Van Leer chocolate was named the top chocolate in the world in a blind taste test at Chez Panisse in 1995 by Cook’s Illustrated also our cocoa powder was the top choice by Cook’s in 1999, and was the chocolate provider for the White House from Carter to Clinton’s presidency.

I also happened to go to high school with Mr. Van Leer’s daughter, Liz. So, it was an honor to be able to reconnect and discuss his background and recommendations in the world of chocolate. And some of what we discussed melded well with some of the lessons I’ve previously learned and other parts were entirely new and different! There is a wide range of advice out there as far as how to make chocolate, and we’re open to learning it all!

Let’s go through the chocolate-making process and I’ll highlight the new and different bits from my conversation with Mr. Van Leer.

Beans

Mr. Van Leer recommends getting cocoa beans from Ghana. He loves the Accra beans; they have “the cleanest flavor” and ferment better than anywhere else. Ghana beans also have the best yield, have more cocoa butter, and have the truest “chocolate flavor”. They are also the beans that went into the chocolate that won Van Leer Chocolate all its awards. Previously we had heard that most of the best bean genetics (Criollo) are in Latin America. Now we’re looking forward to expanding our bean sourcing horizon! He suggests that everyone develop their own taste rather than taking the advice of others.

Winnowing

Using screens to filter the nibs and husks could improve the speed and quality of the winnowing process. Using screens after cracking allows the nibs to go through the screen while keeping the shell above. One can then easily “blow” the shells away. Using a series of smaller screens mimics a true winnower, and will give you the cleanest nibs.

Roasting

Rather than our intensive kill step at 400 degrees, then dropping to 250 degrees, Mr. Van Leer recommends a completely new way of roasting (two step process): one to pop the shells, and again after winnowing and cracking the beans, never taking the temperature above 212 F. This allows for a more even roast with more of a consistent sized nib. Cocoa beans are of varied size- roasting them as whole beans over roasts small beans and under roasts larger ones. He suggests roasting with steam in a drum, something we haven’t heard before and are curious to try. Some of the roasting devices used by other bean-to-bar makers look like engineering feats out of Star Wars, particularly Art Pollard’s creation at Amano Artisan Chocolate. I encourage anyone interested in this to check out the documentary, Bean to Bar, which can be viewed on IndieFlix. If you roast in an oven ensure that the nibs are even on the pan. Coffee drum roasters also work well.

Refining

Mr. Van Leer’s refining recommendations were the most different from our previous advice. He suggests using a mill only to make the chocolate liquor. From there, the best refiner for uniform particle size is the three roll refiner. We’ve seen these before – Ritual Chocolate uses one, and goes into more detail on it here. Mr. Van Leer recommends a particle size of less than 25 microns, and encourages us to refine sugar to small particle size as well! He suggests refining the chocolate liquor and the sugar together. This makes for more uniform mass and also improves the conching flavor. Using a three roll refiner allows more fat release from the bean which makes the mass flow better, reducing the viscosity.

Conching

Another idea is to remove the chocolate from the Premier Wonder Grinder for further conching in a Kitchen Aid mixer, placed on a heating pad at about 145 F for 12 hours. At the moment, we’re conching directly in the grinder, so this could provide an alternative method! We learned that “cheap” chocolate is conched in a grinder- you usually get a less consistent flavor and the particle sizes are not uniform. He suggests tasting a cheap Easter Bunny from CVS or Walmart as an example.

Tempering

Tempering seems to be a point of agreement (besides the exact temperatures) among chocolate-makers. Mr. Van Leer recommends starting the chocolate liquor at 105, then cooling rapidly to 85 degrees, then heating it back to 90-92 F. He suggests a microwave at power level 3 (for about a pound of chocolate) and stirring often. His recommended test is not paper or a knife, but rather to pour it into a small flat mold and see if it shrinks with no discoloration. If that works, then the chocolate has been tempered appropriately.

Molds

Finally, Mr. Van Leer suggests using polycarbonate molds, found online at many sites including TomricMicelli, and Chef Rubber among others. At the moment, we’re using some polypropelene and some silicone molds – neither are amazing, so we’re definitely open to alternatives.

This was quite an educational conversation and we’re excited to stay in touch as we build out our recipes and process further! Let us know if there are additional chocolate experts you’d like to hear from, and we’ll try to get in touch to share their knowledge as well!

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Madagascar batch

This week we made chocolate again and this time, it was delicious, fun, and scientifically documented. Who am I kidding – that’s always what our chocolate-making process looks like!

(Side note – we wish we could be in two places at once, but we will not be able to attend the Northwest Chocolate Festival this weekend. Instead, we’ll be celebrating our wedding anniversary and attending a good friend’s wedding in Kansas City. For all you chocolate-makers out there, let us know how it goes, and we’ll see you there next year!)

We started this batch on Friday the 26th with the roast. Using the Madagascar 2012 harvest that our friends, David and Leslie at Arete generously donated to our “research and development” fund, we put 932 grams of beans on our two new trays into the oven.

roasting Madagascar beans

We roasted them for 5 minutes at 400, then 15 minutes at 250, then finally 10 minutes with the oven off. Then we removed them from the oven and placed them to quickly cool on our new homemade (!) quartz table. (Richard re-designed our entire apartment to include a chocolate factory in our former dining room a couple weeks ago while I was away at a wedding, including building our new tempering table from a beautiful chunk of quartz and some Ikea table legs – wow!)

quartz tempering table

On Monday night, we had our next chance to work on chocolate. It was time to test the winnower that Richard built out of our vacuum cleaner, a bucket, some serious tubes, duct tape, and the champion juicer. Check it out! This is mock 1 and we definitely have some ways to go on improving this, but I’m super impressed with the speed and ease of winnowing with this! Our first batch had a 65% yield of 607 grams, which we intend to improve with some adjustments to the engineering.

roaster and new winnower

We sent the nibs through our trusty Nutribullet to make them into a powder, then put the grinder, rollers, and resulting cocoa powder in the oven to heat. We set the oven to 200 F then turned it off before putting the items in. We’ve learned that the refining process is a lot smoother (and less noisy) if we heat our tools and ingredients first!

I then spooned in the cocoa powder slowly over 45 minutes, using a heat gun to warm the powder and the grinder as the cocoa mass began to liquify. By 10:35pm, all the powder was in the wonder grinder and we were off to bed!

The next morning at 8am, the liquid looked beautiful (and tasted like chocolatey mud)! Richard added 236 grams of sugar, which he had previously ground in a coffee grinder, making 72% chocolate.

Tuesday night, we finished it off with an hour and a half of conching with the spring-loaded grinder unlatched, so the wheels turned freely in the cocoa liquor without the pressure of refining as well. At 9pm, we turned off the wonder grinder and started tempering! We tried some new tempering scrapers and abandoned them halfway through for our trusty Home Depot plastic paint scrapers. Sometimes fancier doesn’t equate to more functional. That said, the quartz table worked perfectly!

tempering table

To temper, we raised the temperature to 112 in the microwave, then poured the liquid out onto the table. We agitated it and spread it around, reducing the temperature to 81 F with very few chunks. In previous batches, when we hit the low 80s, the chocolate tends to chunk off, which makes it difficult to later reintegrate as a liquid. This time, we encountered much less of that for some reason.

We tried a knife test to check the temper, which was inconclusive. Maybe we don’t wait long enough to see if it hardens with a shiny, hard coat. Maybe we eat it off the end of the knife too quickly. We’ll never know!

We decided to go for it – we poured the chocolate into our molds and for the first time, it oozed into them easily without clumping at all. We tried vibrating the molds by hand, to ease the chocolate into every nook and cranny, and in the process were able to successfully remove bubbles as well!

Madagascar bars

Overall, I’m pretty pumped about this batch. We simplified some of the steps and were more successful at most of them as well. Here’s what the final products look like – much less bloom than previously, beautifully shiny (especially that big one on the right), and delicious. We still have lots to learn, but we’re definitely improving!

Madagascar chocolate

Chocolate Texture

Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about texture. Whenever texture and food are discussed in tandem, opinions seem to go to extremes. Either the texture is absolutely amazing or incredibly disgusting. I, for one, am appalled by the texture of rice pudding. Besides the fact that cinnamon isn’t my favorite flavor, the mushiness of the rice completely turns me off. And I don’t have much of a poker face, so you’ll know if I think something is gross.

That said, I don’t seem to have quite as drastic a reaction to differing textures in chocolate. Our first few chocolate batches were made in a coffee grinder and with a molcajete, as you can see from our original post on how to make chocolate at home. The resulting texture was slightly grainy, giving it a rustic and some may even say “homemade” feel on the tongue. The Chocolate Alchemist is not a fan of this version of chocolate and doesn’t consider it “modern chocolate.” In fact, he has called out the definitions and process used in the video that originally inspired us to try our hand at homemade chocolate. He makes a lot of great points, particularly about conching, refining and equipment.

We now realize that we were not conching our chocolate by rolling it around a molcajete. Conching is a somewhat mysterious process that could mean covering sugar particles with cocoa butter or eliminating the bitter flavors of the cocoa beans. Either way, it does not have to do with reducing the particle size of the chocolate; rather it relates to movement over time… a very long time. That is, more than a few minutes on a molcajete.

Similarly, we did not refine our nibs to the point that is traditionally acceptable for “modern chocolate.” Our first batch of chocolate certainly did not feel like the kind of chocolate you could buy in a store or even the smooth bars of most small batch chocolate-makers. There is some debate as to the appropriate micron size of chocolate, though most people seem to agree that it’s somewhere between 14 and 20. This can be measured by your handy dandy micrometer (much cheaper and more accessible than you’d expect). That size is the best fit for the human tongue’s taste buds, in order to access maximum flavor from the chocolate. Our first batch was no where near 14-20 microns. The average size was probably closer to 50-70 microns, which the tongue can certainly still feel. Check out this useful comparison chart for reference.

He also makes three very convenient lists of equipment for the dedicated at-home chocolate chef. I’m including them here for your reference. You can also buy all of these products directly from Chocolate Alchemy (I get no commission from this, but my experience buying from him has been stellar, so this is unbiased promotion):

  1. At minimum: buy nibs, roast them in your oven, and buy a Premier Wonder Grinder for $195.
  2. To go from bean to bar, you’ll need the following:
    1. Your oven $0.00
    2. Champion : $265
    3. Winnowing: Bowl and blow dryier.
    4. Refining: Melanger. $195
    5. Total minimum: $460
  3. For the easiest process and the most money, you’ll need the following:
    1. Champion: $265
    2. Behmor: $299
    3. Sylph: $195
    4. Melanger: $195
    5. Total Deluxe minimum: $954

Given all that, I still believe strongly that it is possible to make a small batch of tasty homemade chocolate, though admittedly not “modern,” with the following equipment and ingredients. Consider it the Root Chocolate variation, to be made at home in your own kitchen.

Equipment

  1. Toaster oven
  2. Coffee grinder (KitchenAid BCG111OB Blade Coffee Grinder – Onyx Black)
  3. Spatula
  4. Marble slab
  5. Paint scrapers

Ingredients

  1. 115 grams of fermented cocoa beans
  2. 40 grams of cane sugar

Your texture will definitely be a little gritty, but if you’re ok with that, then this is your simple homemade chocolate recipe. Let us know what you think by commenting below!

Siriana Cacao

About a month ago, Piper reached out to me through The Chocolate Life. (Have I mentioned how much I appreciate the connections I’ve made to the local and online chocolate-making community?) She let me know that a dear friend of hers moved to Costa Rica this year, purchased some land and began farming. His plot is surrounded by farmers who having been doing the same for hundreds of years. His goal was two fold, to save the land from developers (tourists attractions), and to help other farmers move their beans at good prices.

That caught my attention. Saving the land, working together with farmers to promote their economic well-being… I was sold. And I’m glad I was!

Piper told me that “the cacao is grown in Matina conton in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica. The trees are indigenous to the area, so these are considered Fine beans. All the practices are organic and sustainable. The beans have been fermented, and sundried and are considered Raw. They are considered one of the best tasting beans in the world by the ICCO and the Tasting salons in Paris. And this year, they had a good spring harvest and the fall harvest will be incredible because of the rains (they thought El’nino would cause a drought). It should be a vintage year.”

Well, we purchased a 2 lb sample from Piper through Siriana Cacao, and made a new batch of chocolate this week. We have a few new tools that helped us along in the process, and the result was both delicious and fun!

Siriana Cacao cut test

First of all, we did a cut test on the beans and they looked a little purple but overall flaky and dark and good! I’ll go into the details of cut testing in another post, but suffice it to say for now that it means they were fermented well – not too much and not too little. Goldie-locks, style.Champion Juicer, modified

Then, after a solid 5 minutes at 400 degrees and 20 minutes at 250 in the oven, we pulled out our first new tool, the Champion Juicer! Chocolate Alchemy sells this for $265, but we found a refurbished one on Ebay for $99. This tool serves as both cracker of beans and later as a way to create the first crude liquor before setting the Premier Wonder Grinder to work. Ours is a littler older than we expected, so we don’t quite trust it to create the liquor. For cracking, though, (and with a few creative modifications to keep our kitchen relatively clean) it was amazing!

wide winnowing basket

We then tried another interesting tool for winnowing – the wider, shallower basket, thanks to a suggestion on our Winnowing Woes post. It worked marginally better at first, then the nibs started flying away along with the husks. So, we returned to the large bin method. We ended up with a 76% yield from full beans to winnowed nibs. We recently learned that a perfect winnowing process would result in a 88% yield, but that almost doesn’t exist in the industry. So, we’re still working on a solution for this portion of the process.

We heated the beans and stone grinder in advance, at the suggestion of some local chocolate-makers, and left the chocolate refining & conching for 24 hours in the wonder grinder this time. The result was beautifully dark (70% again) rich chocolate.

infrared thermometer

Once again, we struggled with the tempering process, though this time we had some extra help in the form of an infrared thermometer as well as a food thermometer. Our first attempt at tempering did not pass the paper test, so we left it overnight and remelted the next day to try again. The second attempt wasn’t perfect, either, but we think it was closer that it has been in the past. There’s still some bloom on some of the bars, but the largest one is beautifully smooth and shiny!

Siriana chocolateSiriana chocolate flakes

The result, 813 grams of delicious Siriana chocolate. Richard’s new favorite part are the flakes or shards that come off the tempering table when we’re done. And I’m actually enjoying our ice cube tray molds, even more than the official bar molds we bought online!

Thank you, Piper!

Roasting beans

Discussing roasting temperatures reminds me of our friend Kevin, whose coffee-roasting contraptions challenge MacGyver’s most creative gadgets. His enthusiasm for coffee rivals ours for chocolate, so it’s only fitting to feature him here!

As Kevin, and all coffee aficionados know, bean roasting time is a critical factor in flavor. Similarly, cocoa bean roasting times have a strong part to play in determining the final taste of chocolate. In our original recipe, we started with 5 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by 10 minutes at 250 degrees. Only recently, in our first experience hosting a chocolate-making class, did we test those numbers.

As I’ve mentioned, my brother is a recent transplant to the Bay Area and now attends Stanford University, pursuing a PhD in Physical Chemistry. To congratulate him and his girlfriend, Malenca, on graduating from college, we had them over for a chocolate-making adventure. We gave them the opportunity to use their chemistry genius to test a variable and as you may have guessed, their variable of choice was roasting time.

We split up a batch of beans we bought from a small market on Mission and Cortland Ave in San Francisco, and created what we believe to be our best two chocolate results yet. We roasted both batches at 400 for 5 minutes. Then, the first batch, which we’re calling Light Roast, continued for another 5 minutes at 250. The second batch, which we’re calling Xtra Toastygot 15 additional minutes at 250. Then we ground and tempered each batch and rolled them into sticks.

2014-08-03 17.59.30

Xtra Toasty turned out with a flavor similar to roasted peanuts, very nutty and almost smoky. It was the favorite of the night. Light Roast ended up almost fruity in flavor. And both broke apart with the snap that characterizes well tempered chocolate!

Our roaster is currently a Black & Decker toaster oven – not exactly a high-end roaster. The best option is a customized rolling roaster like Dandelion Chocolate uses or the Panamanian hand-made coffee bean roaster adapted from car parts we saw on a family operation in Boquete.

Panamanian roaster

However, none of these beat Kevin’s engineering feats!

Kevin's lab