The Chocolate Factor

Time to make the sweets

The appointment had been arranged by the public-relations people, and my instructions were clear. I was to appear at JoAnna's in the Grove, the three-month-old sister location of gourmet grocery and bakery JoAnna's Marketplace in South Miami, at 6:00 a.m. The front door would be open, and somebody would be waiting for me. I'd tour the new facilities and receive a lesson on how to make chocolate -- just about the only substance in the world that could get me up in the predawn darkness.

So when I tentatively pull the door to a shadowy JoAnna's and spot a couple of aproned men behind the counter, I am relieved. The parking lot was kind of spooky so early in the morning, and the store was completely silent. The only light came from the rear of the complex, where goods from a purveyor were being offloaded into the warehouselike kitchen known as JoAnna's Bakehouse, the wholesale baking facility attached to JoAnna's in the Grove. There is some initial confusion as to my visit (turns out they thought I was a customer who wasn't aware they didn't open until seven), but they had simply forgotten I was coming.

I forgive them for having a lot on their minds. After all, the market carries 30 to 40 varieties of pastries per day, and the 2200-square-foot space designated for pastry-making averages about 1000 individual treats daily. To give you an even better idea about the investment the bakery makes on sweets, JoAnna's buys about $50,000 worth of raw chocolate product annually.

The facility is always in production, and depending on what needs to be done, executive pastry chef René Contee, who also is the managing partner of the business, puts in twelve- to eighteen-hour days. But he believes pastry chefs are born, not made, and that "if you've been in the field awhile, you know it's not a job. This is a passion." Or an obsession. Contee admits he dreams of creating new pastries 24-7. "I'm in the shower thinking about pastries," he says half-sheepishly, half-proudly. "I'm driving and thinking about pastries."

Contee, however, is no Willy Wonka, and JoAnna's is no Chocolate Factory. Indeed there is no chocolate waterfall or snozberry-print wallpaper in sight. The kitchen, stocked with sensitive electric ovens, sheeters (for working dough), and stainless-steel racks brimming with pans of artisan breads, is ultraclean and professional. The only creative touches are the full-color framed photos of some of Contee's beautiful desserts.

Once I fuel myself with a little cappuccino, we dedicate ourselves to the delicate business of making chocolate. Actually Contee gets down to business; I get down to drooling. A graduate of Johnson & Wales and a professional in the field for eighteen years, Contee gives his desserts whimsical names and tops nearly all of them with some form of chocolate logo. For instance the "Miami," a concoction of mango mousse and sponge cake, is lidded with a leaf of chocolate that has alligators and palm trees stamped on it. It is the formation of these logos Contee will be demonstrating this day.

A distinguished-looking gentleman with a musical voice that carries a hint of an island accent despite his native-New Yorker heritage, Contee takes his chocolate seriously, and he's not afraid to spout maxims. "Chocolate is an entity unto itself. If you don't respect the chocolate, the chocolate won't respect you," he intones. To that end he handles the pistoles, small chips of chocolate with a 58 percent cocoa butter content, almost reverently. He pours them into a water bath (a double boiler), over which he will melt the pistoles to a thick, smooth liquid that measures in temperature from 113 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (chocolate starts to melt at 60 degrees). Any lower and the cocoa butter particles in the chocolate won't crystallize properly; any higher and the chocolate will burn. Contee also notes that the temperature of the room should be between 60 and 70 degrees, and that no cooking should be in progress (some baking is okay) while the chocolate is being worked because it can flavor the finished product.

This process is known as tempering, and it is performed to make the chocolate structurally different from its original form. Once the cocoa butter particles crystallize, the chocolate, which is so sensitive exposure to light can turn it gray, achieves a hard gloss and brittle texture that makes it more resilient. Contee tests the melted chocolate for the proper temperature by dabbing it on his lower lip, a technique he learned from his baking master. (Warning: Amateur chocolate-makers, do not try this at home. Risks include third-degree burns.) You can use a candy thermometer instead, but Contee admits, "I'm a classic person." Chocolate also can be tempered in the microwave, but Contee looks slightly askance when I ask him if he's ever done that. "This is the way I was taught," he concludes.

He also performs the next step, tabling the chocolate to cool it down to 86 degrees, in accordance with traditional chocolate making. First he sets the room exactly to 68 degrees. Then he pours two-thirds of the chocolate onto a marble slab. As the substance begins to hurry toward the edges of the slab like ripples from a stone thrown in a lake, Contee scoops it up with spatulas and pushes it back toward the middle. This technique is called turning. Contee's movements are graceful and practiced, a tango of the hands and wrists. The marble, he tells me, keeps the chocolate cold. But if you wanted more time to work with the chocolate, you might want to use wood, a warmer substance that allows the chocolate to be softer.

As the chocolate cools it sets, becoming less runny and more recognizable as a product. He scrapes the hardened chocolate off the marble and back into the water bath, where the remaining one-third is still melted. After Contee reheats the tempered and tabled chocolate (to 89 degrees for milk and white, 91 degrees for bittersweet), the product is ready to use. At this point you can pour the chocolate into molds to make truffles and fill with liqueur; you can tint it with special food coloring made just for chocolate; or you can make ganache by adding heavy cream to it. Contee uses this batch to spread onto transfer sheets, pieces of cellophane preprinted with designs. When the chocolate is firm enough to peel off, the cellophane will come away bare, leaving its designs like temporary tattoos on the skin of the chocolate. Then you can cut the chocolate into whatever shape you desire.

"Pastries are as creative as you are," Contee says as he ends the lesson. "If you follow simple rules about respecting the chocolate, you'll find it's good to play with." More fun than Play-Doh and definitely tastier. But next time I'll wait until a decent hour of the day, or at least until the sun rises. It's the chocolate that needs to be tempered, not my sleep habits.

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