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inspiration through learning – chocolate-making class

I love how every new class I take inspires more kitchen creativity.  It doesn’t matter if the class is about cooking, gardening, or even project management, business development, or research and analysis … every tidbit of new knowledge is saved in that hard drive I call my brain, and a variety of creative multidisciplinary solutions always seem to pop out whenever I’m faced with new challenges or lines of inquiry.

I previously tried making chocolately stuff from cacao nibs and powder.  Utter, utter failures 🙂 ritty and granular and poorly emulsified.  It looked and tasted like what it looks like and so I moved on to different experiments, figuring the magic of conjuring chocolate out of beans was out of reach for the home enthusiast.

But then Facebook (oh, Facebook!) recommended a Chocolate-Making class at Markham and Fitz Chocolates, a chocolatier in Bentonville, Arkansas not far from home.  Of course, my interest revitalized and  I immediately bought a ticket to demystify the metamorphosis of the humble cacao bean into glorious chocolate.

Arrival and Initial Impressions

I arrived early to Markham and Fitz, and was impressed by their bright and welcoming shop.  Their chocolate kitchen is in clear view of the dining area, and the heavenly aroma of cacao beans roasting perfumed the air.  I looked around at their offerings, which included a variety of chocolate bars, baked goods, and lo and behold, adult beverages.  I abstained from all goodies, waiting to see which samples we might be offered during class.

While waiting for class to start, I chatted with a gentleman who drove 2 hours from Branson, MO, just to attend this class.  He’s a local supplier of prepared snacks to local Branson entertainment businesses and I was intrigued about his enthusiasm to learn about chocolate making to build on his offerings there.

Cacao Bean Sourcing

Raw cacao beans

Class begins.  After donning hairnets and gloves, we entered the kitchen area, where our instructor, Preston ‘Stu’ Stewart (aka “Chocolate Dad”), began by explaining how cocoa, like coffee, was traded as a commodity, but is now starting to be sold as fair trade cocoa.

Cacao, like coffee, grows in the tropics, and is typically traded as a commodity, but they’re helping support the supply chain by purchasing higher quality cocoa beans and the farmers are able to sell their cocoa beans at a much higher price.

Fair Trade (fair trade is mostly a marketing term) means that the cacao is grown sustainably and fosters sustainable incomes for farmers and their families.  Fair Trade cacao is exciting because the industry is following coffee’s footsteps and we are now seeing more premium bean varieties, something uncommon in commodity markets.

Markham and Fitz carefully selects their cacao beans from growers in several countries including Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua.  The variety allows them to tailor their chocolate for different flavor profiles and fat content.

Sorting and Storing

Growers sort the beans after harvest to remove debris like underformed beans or  broken shells or husks.  “Chocolate Dad” however, insists that their local team sorts the beans again upon receipt to further improve the purity of their chocolate.

The sorted beans are stored by variety until ready for roasting and winnowing.

Roasting and Winnowing

Winnower, hacked with a shop vac to create a negative vacuum to suck up hisks
This was their original cacao grinder. Now that they've upgraded to a massive grinders, this one is used for their chocolate experiments and testing.

After sorting, the beans are roasted, which helps loosen the outer husk, and then the husk is separated from the nib in a process called winnowing.

Markham and Fisk demonstrated impressive ingenuity when developing their roasting and winnowing processes.  They added a rotating drum inside the roasting oven to avoid hot spots in the oven and enable even roasting.  It reminded me of the drum use for drawing lottery numbers.  Then they connected a shop vac to a container in the winnower to create negative air flow.  Once the seeds are added to the jumper, the cacao bean is cracked into nibs and the granular material is sucked into PVC tube leading to the shop vac and the heavier cacao nibs drop into a bucket.  Genius!

After they are winnowed, the nibs are ground with cocoa butter in a grinding machine for 7 days.  Yep.  7 days.  It is ground with cocoa butter and sugar for up to 7 days.   This releases the natural fat found in the cocoa beans and refines it along with the sugar so that the particle size is so small that you can’t feel any texture on your tongue.  It also evenly distributes the fat (cocoa butter) and the solids to make a smooth emulsion.

Tempering and Pouring into Bar Molds

Tempering chocolate stabilized the cocoa butter molecules to give the chocolate a shiny finish, a good ‘snap’, and a longer shelf life.  

Cocoa butter is high in healthy fats: oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), and stearic and palmitic acids, both of which are forms of saturated fat.

During tempering, the chocolate is heated in the mixing bowl before it is drawn into a cooling mechanism and returned to the mixing bowl for more melting and mixing. This process is to ensure that all fats are completely melted and homogenized into chocolate before dispensing it into molds and setting.

When the chocolate is at the right temperature (around body temp), the tempering machine is set to measure out bars, 2 ounces at a time, with pauses in between to allow the human operator to move the mold tray to the next bar.  Once filled, the chocolate molds are placed on a vibrating plate to even out the bar and remove air bubbles.  Toppings are added to the bottom of the bar, the mold is tapped hard on the counter to set the toppings into the soft chocolate.  The bars then are put in the fridge to set and then they’re ready to eat!

I made these 

Final Thoughts and Notes

  1. I thought it was interesting that theobromine, a bitter alkaloid (methylxanthine) in cacao is a mild stimulant that is very similar in chemical structure to caffeine.  Theobromine can kill dogs; this is why dogs should never eat chocolate.
  2. Cacao is the raw, pure chocolate found in the cacao plant; cocoa is made through heat-processing the cacao beans, like powdered cocoa for drinking or chocolate.  Ha! Finally!
  3. This was an extremely fun and tasty class that gave me a lot of ideas.  Will I be making chocolate at home in the future?  Maybe, maybe not.  But now I understand why my previous chocolate efforts have failed and I now have a new appreciation for the complexity and richness of fine chocolate.

Takeaways that Inspired Me

  • If a tool doesn’t exist, create one.  I was impressed with Markham & Fitz’s ingenuity of rigging up a tumbler inside of the cocoa bean roasting oven and creating a vacuum chamber for a winnower out of a shop vac.
  • Just as with fermentation and culturing, slow and steady wins the chocolate race.  The smooth creaminess of the chocolate after being ground for several days is unsurpassed. Some things simply cannot be rushed.
  • Cacao nibs are absolutely delicious when freshly roasted.  The stuff I bought on Amazon years ago nearly broke my teeth. I forgot to ask them if they sell just the nibs, but I’ll be back next month for their BonBon making class!  YES!!!
  • I need a multi-timer with a little dry-erase board in my life. Class was interrupted a couple of times for the timer to give the croissants and egg wash 
  • Learning is always fun ?

Links and More Reading

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