Instead our instructor gave us a quick lecture on different types of chocolate and how to temper it — so your candy turns out smooth and shiny, with a nice "snap."To temper chocolate, you melt it in a double boiler off the heat, cool it down, and warm it up again so you can work with it. Then she pointed out where ingredients were stored in the kitchen and went over a list of chocolate recipes we'd gotten as a handout. We each chose a recipe, and then she let us loose, to spend the rest of the evening making chocolates — mostly on our own. Whoa.
I'd chosen turtles: toasted pecans covered with caramel and chocolate. How hard could that be? Other people chose to make various flavors of truffles as well as toffee, white-chocolate-peppermint bark, and peanut-butter balls. We went to our stations, tied on white aprons, and began to assemble our mise en place, measuring out all the ingredients we'd need before we began to cook. We learned how to chop chocolate — beginning at a corner, using a serrated knife. We learned measure butter by weight, cutting slabs from 1-pound blocks. It was fun to have huge quantities of quality ingredients at our fingertips: big blocks of imported chocolate, a vat of sugar, even champagne for the "mimosa" truffles.
My recipe called for a pound and a half of toasted pecans. A ridiculous amount, I thought, but for once I was determined to adhere slavishly to a recipe. I spread them on a sheet of parchment on a full-size baking sheet and stuck them in the oven for 10 minutes. I'd never seen such an oven; it was taller than me, and had sets of double doors that opened simultaneously to reveal many racks within.
Then I had to make the caramel. I poured corn syrup, sugar, and milk into a saucepan and approached the stove. My cooktop at home is a sheet of glass with four piddly burners. This stove was a vast, professional gas model, of course, with ten or 12 burners. It must feel like an inferno when all of them are in use. I learned how to adjust the flame and consulted my recipe.
Although we were supposed to read our whole recipe before beginning to cook, I hadn't gotten very far with mine. I guess I like a little suspense as I cook. If I had followed orders, I would have realized that my caramel required 45 minutes of constant stirring. And at the same time, I was supposed to temper my chocolate and arrange my pecans into clusters.
I was lucky that other people had chosen recipes that gave them a little free time, so one kind woman pitched in with tempering my bowlful of chocolate — taking my pot of boiling water off the neighboring burner as I endlessly stirred my caramel, and setting my bowl of chopped chocolate on top. Another woman gave me a break from stirring so I could form my pecans into "turtles." Others helped with this as they waited for their chocolate to cool or their truffles to set. My turtles went from being perfect little reptiles to very free-form, impressionist interpretations. Most had several heads and extra legs, because I had way too many pecans. As it was, we filled three full baking sheets with tightly packed turtles. Meanwhile, people prepared the super-rich hot chocolate recipe and baked a pan of decadent brownies. As you work, you can look around at what others are doing and learn from watching.
And everyone sampled every recipe; it's only polite.
My caramel kept threatening to boil over the saucepan, so the instructor helped me transfer it to a bigger pot. One of the great things about a cooking class, I learned, is that someone else does all the dishes. You just stack everything neatly on the counter.
As I stirred, my wrist began to singe from the high heat of the flame. I'd forgotten how exciting and dangerous cooking can be. Gas stoves add to the fun; at one point, the instructor and I were talking, and the burner behind mine suddenly turned itself on high, bright blue flames shooting skyward. "Weird!" she said, reaching for the right knob. "Wow!" I thought. I was instantly converted to gas burners.
My caramel took an hour to reach "soft-ball" temperature, but spooning it over the pecans was quick work. It had to be — caramel hardens fast. My bowl of brown goop tasted exactly like caramel, too. Somehow I hadn't expected that. There was only enough to cover two of the three trays of pecans, so someone melted more chocolate and made pecan bark with the leftovers.
Then the instructor showed me how to fill a pastry bag — there are rolls of clear plastic ones that you can tear off, like a paper towel — with melted chocolate to cover the caramel. That was quick and fun, in a drippy, Jackson Pollock way. After I smoothed the chocolate with a spatula, the pans went into the walk-in fridge to cool. It was nearly 10 pm and class was ending. Refrigerating chocolate ruins its glossy appearance and gives it a streaky "bloom," but the turtles still tasted fine.
So did all the truffles, brownies, peanut-butter balls, toffee, and bark... everything had been made in large quantities for sharing. My friends and I admitted to feeling slightly drugged, spacey and sick, although we kept nibbling and filling our cardboard pastry boxes with professional-looking, fresh, scrumptious candy.
Turtles, if anatomically incorrect.
We also went home with all the recipes. I look forward to making truffles, peppermint bark, and maybe even more caramel, after I buy a candy thermometer. I'll wish I could stand at that powerful stove again, and I'll also wish I had a house elf to do the dishes. I plan to give most of it away as presents. But not all of it.
As we left the school, we walked through a kitchen that had a professional-training class preparing a late dinner. In one of the classrooms, a table was elegantly set for students and instructors; you eat everything you make in cooking school. Smells of prosciutto and parmesan filled the air — pasta sauce. In spite of our chocolate overload, we inhaled deeply and happily.
I'm definitely taking more cooking classes! I can't wait to learn more. And I want a dangerous stove.