WHILE inventiveness is a desirable quality in most kinds of cooking, making up your own rules when working with chocolate can mean horrors like white streaks, breakage, tackiness and globbing.
Ron Fousek, pastry chef at the Four Seasons, points out that chocolate begins as a living thing and like all living things is occasionally capricious. Roland Mesnier, White House pastry chef and teacher of a professional chocolate course, advises professional instruction before plunging into complicated coating and dipping.
But just as eating chocolate tends to be addictive, so does working with it. In cooks who get the bug, the quest for a perfect chocolate-covered strawberry or bonbon, or a lovely, shiny molded candy is not easily thwarted.
Pure chocolate for coating or molding must be tempered if you want to keep the finished product more than an hour or two. Tempering is a process of heating, cooling, then heating again, which allows the sugar, cocoa butter and cocoa powder in pure chocolate to marry happily. If pure chocolate is simply melted and used for coating, it will probably develop white streaks (cocoa butter that has separated), it will stay "tacky" or soft and it will melt immediately on your fingers.
There is a chocolate called "glaze," "summer coating," or just coating chocolate in which some or most of the cocoa butter is replaced with other vegetable fat. This chocolate can simply be melted and used without tempering. Since cocoa butter accounts for a lot of the good taste in chocolate, however, many true chocolate lovers prefer working with pure semi-sweet chocolate, referred to as "couverture."
While a home kitchen can rarely duplicate such professional conditions as the Four Seasons kitchen, Fousek's general rules apply.
* First, try to work in a cool (ideally between 60 and 70 degrees) kitchen on a dry day. Fousek also suggests getting the kids out of the house. What he means is, relax.
Before beginning, remember that getting even a drop of water or other liquid in the chocolate will make it glob up, or "seize." (Another idiosyncrasy of chocolate: a drop or two of liquid will make melting chocolate seize, a relatively greater amount won't.)
To do the tempering:
* Slice the chocolate into thin shreds and put it in the top of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water. Let it melt slowly, uncovered, stirring frequently. Don't stir too vigorously or you'll incorporate air that will make bubbles in the finished product. Fousek heats his chocolate to 120 degrees, a temperature he knows works with the chocolate he uses. Other chocolates may not need such high heat, and other experts use temperatures between 110 and 120 degrees. In any case, do not let the chocolate get above 120 degrees.
Don't let a drop of water, or even steam, come in contact with the chocolate. Wooden spoons are best for stirring, since moisture can condense on metal and fall back into the chocolate.
* Remove chocolate from the heat and let it cool, stirring, to around 80 degrees. Fousek cools his chocolate over ice cubes. Cool water can also be used. The chocolate should be fairly thick but not set.
* Put thickened chocolate over tepid or warm water and let it heat again, this time to between 86 and 90 degrees. Fousek brings his to 87 degrees. Mesnier says the reheated chocolate should come to body temperature, 98 degrees. The chocolate is now ready to use for coating or dipping.
* To test your tempering success, let a bit of chocolate dry on a piece of baking parchment. It should dry shiny, unstreaked and hard. If it is streaked and stays tacky, you can start the tempering process all over again with the same chocolate. Once you've found a combination of temperatures that works with a certain kind of chocolate, you will have found tempering nirvana. The same temperatures with the same chocolate will work every time.
Now that you've got your tempered chocolate at 87 degrees or so, what do you do with it? Here are some ideas:
You can dip things in it--fruit, candy "centers" (see recipes in "Joy of Cooking," for instance), marshmallows, nuts, tiny butter cookies or other pastries. Or you can mold it, using plastic or metal molds available in kitchenware stores.
To use the chocolate for dipping, make sure the objects to be dipped are cool. You can buy special plastic dipping spoons or forks at kitchenware stores, but small serving or barbecue forks work almost as well. Shake off excess chocolate and lay sweets on parchment paper to dry.
If possible, don't wash strawberries to be dipped, as moisture will cause chocolate to lose its shine. Hold strawberries by the stem to dip, and only coat the bottom two-thirds or so. Bananas can be peeled and cut on an angle into slices, then dipped. It's not absolutely necessary to temper chocolate for use with fruits, since their natural moisture prevents the kind of shine you'd get with dryer ingredients, but if you want to keep them more than a few hours, or package them as gifts, tempering is desirable because it makes the chocolate sturdier and less prone to melting.
When working with detailed molds, paint a layer of chocolate on the inside of the mold first to make sure there will be no air bubbles on the surface of the finished product. You can then fill the mold completely and let it dry as a solid piece, or you can fill it, let it set on the outside, then empty the center. A solid piece will be more stable, but also much more expensive to produce.
You can make chocolate cups by brushing the insides of small foil candy cups with chocolate, letting it dry, then peeling off the foil. The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook suggests filling these cups with cream and serving them to drop in coffee. Larger cups can be used for mousses.
Fousek makes lovely chocolate decorations by piping chocolate out of a small paper cone onto parchment paper. He lets the designs dry, then uses them to decorate pastries. They could also be used on mousses or cakes.
Sources for chocolate: Albert Uster Imports in Gaithersburg is the wholesale outlet for Carma chocolates. La Cuisine in Alexandria and La Champagne in Bethesda also sell Carma. Other sources for bittersweet chocolate for tempering are Williams-Sonoma and Kron in the Mazza Gallerie in Washington, and Fran's in Fairfax.