A Day in the Life of a Chocolatier

irish cream meltA chocolatier. That’s me—it sounds pretty glamorous, doesn’t it?

It sounds glamorous if, when you read that word, you pronounce it in your head as “cha-ko-la-tee-ay,” with French verve. If you pronounce it in your head to rhyme with “musketeer,” it just sounds like I should be hanging out with my pal, D’Artagnan.

Most of the time I just tell people that I make candy.

These days, most of my waking hours are filled with candy—either the actual making of it or any of the other activities that go along with its selling. It isn’t especially glamorous, or difficult, for that matter.

In fact, it’s like all of the other crafts that you and I do—there’s a process involved and skills to master. Some aspects are mindless and repetitive aspects, but rather soothing. Some aspects I don’t especially care for. Other aspects are fun and creative, and keep me coming back.

I don’t make candy to make a living. I make candy because I like to make candy, just as I like to quilt and I like to weave. But, unlike quilting and weaving, candy piles up fast and that can cause its own dilemmas. I sell candy so I can justify making more, to experiment and try new things, without having to eat it all myself.

I’ve had glimpses of what goes on in a small, but commercial, bricks-and-mortar candy shop. Even small places have huge vats of chocolate that is tempered by machine. They have conveyor belts that bring candies under a stream of chocolate to enrobe them. One shop even had a spray (think of the spray nozzle at your kitchen sink) through which they could deliver chocolate over popcorn—so cool!

My operation is very different. At times, I may be making candy to fill one order from my Etsy shop—just one small pan of caramels or gianduja. At other times, like right now, I’m working on a slightly larger scale because I’m getting ready for a show where I sell candy face-to-face and may need a total of, say, 250 or 300 boxes of chocolates.

Almost every candy I make is a multi-stage process so, when I’m making a lot of candies, my days will be organized around the steps. Some days will be focused on making the “innards,” as I think of them, and other days will focus on enrobing, or dipping, the candy innards in chocolate.

When I make the innards, I work in small batches, and usually produce 50 to 200 candies at a time.

I make lots of caramels, which are the most time consuming of the innards. The pan of caramels takes about 2 hours to cook, and I need to pay attention but I can walk away from it if I have to. Other processes go quickly—English toffee, for instance, takes only about 15 minutes to cook and spread in the pan—but I have to be super attentive or end up with a scorched, nasty mess.

Making any of the innards depends on paying careful attention to temperature, so using a candy thermometer is essential. And, since I’ve never met a candy thermometer that I felt I could really, really trust, I also use the old tried-and-true cold-water test.

The cold-water test is based on the principle that cooked candy will react in predictable ways when spooned into ice water. For instance, if I spoon a little caramel into ice water and wait a few seconds, I want the caramel to form a fairly firm ball in my fingers when I pick it up. Other concoctions behave differently. There’s some experience and judgment that factors into this but it’s a time-honored and reliable way to judge readiness.

Once the candy is cooked and has cooled, I have to cut it. This is kind of a drag. If I were ever going to try to get bigger as a candy maker (and I’m not!), I’d want a gizmo called a guitar. The guitar is composed of a frame with taut strings set at intervals, which can be pressed down on a slab of candy to cut it. A home-based candy maker is more likely to use a big knife, maybe lightly oiled, and use either a ruler or cut the pieces by eye. I think it’s charming when the candies vary a little in size, don’t you?

The next step is the critical one that makes me a chocolatier—tempering chocolate. Some people who make candy use melted chocolate chips, a little bit of chocolate but lots of other stuff, too. Others use the so-called “candy melts,” which, you may notice, don’t claim to be chocolate at all, because they aren’t!

Anyone who wants to make really good candy learns to temper chocolate. To read about this, you might think it’s some sort of magical, mystery process but it’s pretty straightforward, kind of time-consuming, and just takes practice to get it right.

What is it? Tempering chocolate means melting quality, real chocolate and then cooling it in a controlled way to bring about a transformation of the chocolate. Some people temper chocolate on a marble slab and others do it with a technique called “seeding,” or adding unmelted chocolate to the melted in a particular way.

The desired outcome is the same. One tempers chocolate so that it will set without being refrigerated, it will stay set at room temperature, it will set with a high gloss, and it will have the “snap” that we expect in excellent chocolate. When you dip candy innards into tempered chocolate, it coats them easily and smoothly and the extra sort of cascades off, to leave a thin shell, smooth and shiny.

Untempered chocolate will look dull, often have streaks or a grainy texture, and will be difficult to use. It won’t ever set, unless refrigerated, and will start to melt again at room temperature. If you dip candy into it, it may lump up, and stay thick and coarse. Why bother with chocolate at all, if it is going to be so unappetizing?!

I have considered buying a tempering machine designed for home use, which would bring melted chocolate to the necessary temperatures and hold it there and, in theory, save me some trouble. But, try as I have, I‘ve never found one that gets good reviews from users and, for the $1000 I’d need to spend, I’d want it to make my life easier!

So, I spend a lot of time tempering chocolate by hand. I may temper 3 pounds at a time. I melt the chocolate to specific temperatures, depending on whether it’s dark, milk, or white chocolate, and then bring those temperatures down again. It takes about 30 minutes of constant stirring to temper chocolate, and it can’t be rushed.

Dipping or enrobing the innards comes next—this is one of my favorite parts! Sometimes I use a ladle to slather chocolate on bigger items. Sometimes I use a mold. Mostly I use a special little fork and a big bowl of tempered chocolate, and dip the candies one by one.

I get all set up and then I get in the zone.

I put my bowl of tempered chocolate on a heating pad, to keep it at the right temperature so it doesn’t lose its temper (because that causes me to lose mine!) I get all organized with any garnishes and my other tools, and I dip, tap, tap, tap.

I put one piece candy in the chocolate, turn it with the fork, scoop it up, slide it across the edge of the bowl and tap, tap, tap to remove the excess chocolate (according to a watchful friend, I tap about 12-14 times per piece). Then I slide it onto parchment paper.

Then I do another. And another. I stop after about 5 candies and either make my perfect swirl (the easiest trick in candy making!) or add garnishes. Either of these things needs to be done before the chocolate starts to set, which explains having to stop dipping frequently. I stop after every 20 or 30 candies to stir and check the temperature of the chocolate and adjust my heating pad, if necessary.

While I dip my little chocolates, I think deep thoughts. What in the world can I blog about next? How long before I can eat lunch? What will I eat for lunch? How in world did I get chocolate there?

Once I have all the candies enrobed and the chocolate has set completely, and I’ve cleaned up my mess and licked the spoon and my bowl, I trim the candy to remove excess chocolate around the foot.

The only task left is to package the candy. This is probably my least favorite part of the process but it has to be done!

I weigh out the candies, then I put them in little candy paper cups. I arrange them in the glossy white box and make sure they look pretty. I label the box. I seal the box with my little “KerryCan” sticker. I move on to the next box. The boxes pile up in a most satisfying way.

Candy making, as you can see, is a lot like knitting or quilting or writing a blog post—lots of persnickety details, some more fun than others. It gets easier to do effectively when you do it regularly. It involves some skill and technique but even more simple concentration and attention to detail.

The outcome may not be glamorous but it is always pleasing and, when others see your work and tell you they love what you’ve created, it feels pretty fine!