One of the best days of my life happened over the weekend.

How do you start off an awesome day?  I’ll tell you how I do.  Coffee and a muffin from Bouchon.

What made it one of the best days of my life?  Here’s a hint…

Can you figure it out yet?  How about now…

Okay no, I didn’t enroll myself into pastry school.  Well, sort of.  For my 30th b-day my wonderful in-laws sent me to a one-day cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America.  I chose “Chocolates and Confections,” since chocolate is one of those areas that you basically need to be a scientist to “get it.”  I can do cakes, I can do breads, I can do cookies, cake pops, and even french macaroons.  But chocolate?  Forget it.  Until now!

The instructor for my course was none other than Chef Stephen Durfee, past Executive Pastry Chef at the French Laundry, James Beard award winner for “Outstanding Pastry Chef,” named one of the 10 best pastry chefs in America, etc.  Last month he competed as the chocolatier on “Team America” at the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie (which is basically the Olympics of pastry competitions).  He made a flipping bicycle out of chocolate (and was 4th in the world).  You can see him in the above picture, stirring blanched almonds, sugar, and butter into what would eventually become Almond Dragées.  A-MAZ-ing! You might think they’re like other almond candies, but that’s only true in the same way that Bentleys and Hondas are both cars.

Pulling apart the almonds so they don’t stick together.  Rather important.  God bless silpats.

We learned all of the basic fundamentals of chocolate, including how to (correctly) temper chocolate, how to make ganache, and how to use molds.  Chef Durfee is seen above spreading ganache out to cool.  Apparently I’ve been going about ganaches all wrong–turns out it requires more than just microwaving a bowl of cream and chocolate bits until it’s melted.  You have to cool it.  And agitate it.  And love it.

Here’s something interesting.  Truffles.  Chef said you could scoop them out of the ganache, but he prefers piping because it’s faster.

Behold my mostly perfectly shaped truffles!

And for comparison, behold my neighbor’s sad poop-y ganache.

A quick coat of cocoa powder for some of the truffles (after two baths of perfectly tempered chocolate, naturally).

In addition to the milk and dark chocolate truffles, we also made coconut lime truffles.  Above, covered in toasted coconut.

What’s this?  Chocolate on your workstation?  No, no, don’t clean it with a rag…

Burn it off with freaking propane.  Yeah.  That’s how chocolate gets cleaned off of marble counters in commercial kitchens.  Kind of awesome.

Back to the almonds.  Added a bit of perfectly tempered chocolate and stirred like crazy.  Chocolate is a weird and delightful thing.  When you first add a bit of chocolate, it’s kind of shiny and soft.  But then it starts to stick to the nuts and it goes absolutely matte, like powder.  It’s science I tell you!

See?  You just keep mixing and the chocolate totally changes.

I guess if you are a pastry chef god amongst mere mortals, you have your name put on all your knives.  I pity the fool who tries to steal Chef’s knives.

Oh!  And we made peanut brittle!  It was SO ridiculously good!  There are several key things to know when making peanut brittle: 1) cook the peanuts raw in the sugar so that the sugar gets the flavor (instead of cooking the sugar and then adding the peanuts at the end); 2) add the baking soda carefully at the end–it will make the batch brown more, so make sure it’s not too brown when you take it off the stove.

Pour it out onto one of those amazing silpats and spread it out.

But don’t just spread it out… When the brittle has cooled enough so that you can touch it, get your hands underneath it and gently pull and stretch it.  Doing that makes the brittle easier to eat and not so thick.  Mind blowing I tell you!  It’s science!

Here’s the start of something fabulous.  Above is the first layer of pecan butter crunch (toffee).  Super buttery and delish!

But obviously this is a chocolate class, so we’re going to cover it in chocolate and then flip the whole thing over and cover the other side in chocolate too.

See how the chocolate toffee on the silpat on the right is perfectly shiny and smooth?  And that smear of chocolate on the left looks like matte shit?  There’s a reason!  If you spread chocolate too many times, the back and forth motion will actually dull the finish of the chocolate.  It’s science!

We made a pretty good looking spread.

This is a picture from one of the students.  I was kind of mesmerized by her chocolate skills.

And molding!  We learned how to make molded chocolates.  I made some last night with chocolate cream Bailey’s fillings and dark chocolate shells.  Kind of amazing.

Draining the inverted mold.  It’s a whole–dare I say it–science.

But there’s also some creativity involved.  These are two molds that the students were doing.  You put the decorations into the molds before you put the chocolate shell in.  Then when you pop the chocolate out of the shell it’s already decorated and smooth and beautiful.

See what I mean?

And I couldn’t help but take a picture of the super top-secret ingredient list for the chocolate kitchen. Some of it is a little “WTF.”

And how fun is this!  There were several classes going on the same time as ours and we each made each other lunch.  Well, we made dessert…obviously.  The other classes were “Asian Classics” and “CIA Favorites.”  It was one of the best buffets I’ve ever seen.  Everything was phenomenal and it went on for multiple tables.

One of the best fundamentals I learned was just how to temper chocolate.  I had no idea.  I feel like I have stepped up my pastry game considerably.  My class size was 7 people total, and I received an apron and a fabulous cookbook–kind of a fab deal.  I am definitely planning on taking another CIA At Home class–and you should too!

One Reply to “Choco-awesome!”

  • Kim Johnson

    By Kim Johnson


    I’m beginning to think there is something to this “science” you speak of.

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