What valentine wouldn't love to be on the receiving end of homemade chocolate treats?
You don't need to be a professional chocolatier or own any special equipment to turn out rich truffles, chocolate bark and fudge in your humble kitchen. I am a notoriously inept candy maker (I've probably ruined one out of every two batches of caramel I've tried to make in the 15 years since I graduated from cooking school), and even I have had some success by selecting recipes that require a lot of high-quality chocolate but little time and attention.
Here are some tips for achieving the best results when making like master chocolatier Jacques Torres at home:
START WITH THE BEST
Inexpensive Hershey bars are fine for the movie theater, but go for a luxury brand like Lindt or Ghirardelli when making Valentine's Day treats. Their richness will give your goodies the texture and flavor you want. And remember when you are paying for your chocolate bars that your expensive homemade truffles will still be cheaper than a box of high-end sweets from a well-known manufacturer.
HANDLE YOUR CHOCOLATE GENTLY
Chocolate isn't difficult to work with, but it is sensitive to heat, becoming grainy and cloudy if overcooked. Before you melt it, chop it finely. If you attempt to melt large chunks, you might overheat parts of your chocolate before the rest of it is close to liquefying.
You can melt chocolate in a double boiler over barely simmering water, whisking it often. Remove the chocolate from heat before it is entirely melted, allowing residual heat to melt the rest. Or you can melt it in the microwave, checking it and stirring it every 30 seconds to prevent it from overheating. Remove it from the microwave before it is entirely melted, again letting residual heat take care of the rest.
USE SECRET INGREDIENTS FOR SUCCESS
To make creamy fudge without fuss, I rely on a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. To get a shiny coating on my chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies, I add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to my melted chocolate. Cocoa powder - instead of tempered chocolate - is a simple, tasty, foolproof coating for truffles. A can of cream of coconut serves as the base for an incredibly rich and flavorful chocolate fondue.
STORE YOUR CHOCOLATE PROPERLY
Whether your treats need to be refrigerated or kept at room temperature, they should be packed in airtight containers to keep them dry. Moisture is chocolate's enemy and will cause an unattractive gray "blooming" on the surface.
White Chocolate and Cherry Bark
Freezing the foil-lined pan before pouring the melted chocolate allows this bark to set up quickly and with a shiny finish.
6 ounces best-quality white chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1/3 cup dried cherries
1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Put in freezer.
2. Melt chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl, stirring every 30 seconds, until most of it is melted, about 2 minutes. Stir until smooth.
3. Scrape chocolate into chilled pan and smooth into a thin layer with a small metal spatula. Sprinkle with nuts and cherries. Place pan back in freezer for 10 minutes.
4. Lift bark from pan, pulling up on foil; place it on a cutting board, and cut the bark into pieces. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. Makes about 10 ounces.
Traditional fudge takes a long time to make, requires a candy thermometer and can be ruined in several ways at various stages - just stirring or even moving the mixture while it cools can cause dreaded sugar crystals to form, making the fudge grainy and unappetizing. Using Marshmallow Fluff and evaporated milk allows you to skip the laborious process and arrive at smooth fudge in minutes. You can cut this fudge into small squares or use a heart-shaped cookie cutter, if you like.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (71/2-ounce) jar Marshmallow Fluff
1 (12-ounce) bag semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups whole unsalted almonds
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Line an 8-inch-square baking pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil, making sure the foil is tucked into all the corners and there is at least 1 inch overhanging the top of the pan on all sides.
2. Combine sugar, evaporated milk, butter, espresso powder and salt in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it comes to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Remove from heat and stir in Marshmallow Fluff, chocolate, almonds and vanilla until smooth. Scrape into prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
4. Grasping overhanging foil on either side of the pan, lift out fudge and place on a cutting board. Cut into small squares. Serve immediately or store squares in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. Makes 32 small squares, about 2 pounds.
Quick Chocolate-Mint Truffles
The most difficult thing about making chocolate truffles is the tedious process of tempering the chocolate coating. So skip this step and coat your truffles with cocoa powder instead. By varying the flavorings and coatings, you can create many combinations with this one recipe. Just substitute another liqueur - framboise, Grand Marnier, kahlua - for the creme de menthe. Instead of coating your truffles with cocoa powder, you could coat them with finely chopped nuts or sweetened flaked coconut.
1/2 pound bittersweet or milk chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons creme de menthe
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1. Place chocolate in a large, heatproof bowl.
2. Place cream and butter in a heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil. Pour over chocolate and whisk until smooth. Stir in creme de menthe. Refrigerate until thick, 2 to 3 hours.
3. Place cocoa powder in a small bowl. One at a time, measure out truffle mixture in rounded teaspoonfuls. With your palms, quickly roll each truffle into a ball and place in bowl with cocoa powder. Turn truffle to coat. Place coated truffle in a small paper candy cup. Place cups in an airtight plastic container and refrigerate for up to 3days. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Makes about 20 truffles.
When dipping fresh fruit in chocolate (strawberries are great for dipping, of course, as are fresh figs), the important thing to remember is that the surface of the fruit must be very dry to allow the chocolate coating to set up without becoming chalky and spotty. Juicy slices of peach or chunks of fresh pineapple won't work for this reason. Refrigerating the fruit before dipping helps the chocolate set up quickly, before anything can go wrong.
1 pound seedless grapes
8 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Use a scissor to snip grapes into small clusters. Place grapes in freezer while chocolate melts.
2. In a medium-size saucepan, bring 2 inches of water to a bare simmer. Place chocolate in a stainless-steel bowl big enough to rest on top of saucepan and set it over pan, making sure it doesn't touch the water. Heat, whisking occasionally, until most of chocolate is melted. Remove from heat and whisk until smooth.
3. Hold a bunch of grapes by the stem over the bowl of chocolate. Spoon chocolate over grapes to coat them completely, letting excess drip back into bowl. Place on baking sheet and repeat with the remaining grapes. Freeze for 10 minutes and serve, or refrigerate for up to a day before serving. Makes 4 servings.
Mini Chocolate-Marshmallow Cookies
Freezing the cookies before coating them with chocolate helps the Fluff keep its shape as the warm chocolate is poured over it.
24 vanilla wafer cookies
1 1/2 cups Marshmallow Fluff
8 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Place cookies, flat sides down, on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Top each cookie with a rounded teaspoonful of Marshmallow Fluff. Place baking sheet in freezer for 10 minutes to firm up.
2. Combine chocolate and oil in a microwave-safe bowl. Melt chocolate in microwave. Stir until smooth.
3. Spoon some chocolate over each cookie to coat completely. Return baking sheet to freezer for another 10 minutes, until chocolate is set. Refrigerate for up to 6 hours, until ready to serve. Makes 24 cookies.
I like the way tropical bananas and mangoes taste with this simple sauce, but you could dip fresh strawberries, dried pineapple or chunks of pound cake, too. Refrigerate leftover sauce for up to a week, then reheat it and serve over toasted pound cake topped with ice cream.
1 (15-ounce) can cream of coconut, such as Coco López
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa power
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 bananas, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices
2 mangoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1. Combine cream of coconut and cocoa powder in a small, heavy saucepan. Heat over low, whisking, until mixture is warmed through and smooth.
2. Transfer to a fondue pot or a warmed heatproof bowl, stir in vanilla and salt, and serve with bananas and mangoes for dipping. Makes 6 servings.