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Chocolate 101
Lynn Hoffman
Philadelphia Daily News

TELL ME WHO you envy and I'll tell you who you are. Me, I envy anyone who gets to go to a real college and take a course that includes a class in chocolate.

So, instead of turning hopelessly green - and just in time for that chocolate-loving holiday, Valentine's Day - I followed some culinary arts students from Drexel University as they attended a class this past week devoted entirely to making wonderful desserts out of chocolate.

The guest lecturer was Fred Ortega, chef patissier at Le Bec-Fin. The classroom was at that restaurant's dessert kitchen - as compact and well organized as a ship - which is wedged into a hospital-clean space above the dining room. The 10 students, in their culinary whites, clustered around the prep table, sniffing and grinning and looking just a little awed by their surroundings.

The lesson for the day was chocolate truffles, and the soft-spoken Ortega laid out the chocolate for each student team. He started, of course, with the best chocolate available, Valrhona Guanaja, as well as heavy cream, butter, invert sugar and flavorings.

I asked chef-professor Francis McFadden what chocolate has to do with college, and he explained like a man who'd answered the same silly question before: "It's about chemistry and biophysics and even about accounting - but in the end it turns out that those are the easy parts.

"The real value of this is that the students get to see the potential in a set of ingredients. When they go back to school and design their own menus and cook dinners for the public, they'll have this inspiration behind them."

Chocolate itself is a traditional romantic gift - intense, aromatic and reputedly an aphrodisiac. It even has a mildly stimulating effect. So it's easy to see why chocolate truffles would be popular on Valentine's Day.

Chocolate truffles get their name because their brown, slightly misshapen appearance recalls the intensely flavored, dark fungus that hides below the forest floor in France and Italy.

These truffles are pretty intense in their own right, but there's nothing fungal about them. The butter and cream soften the candy's texture to melt-in-your-mouth consistency. A well-made truffle goes from firm and interesting in your hand to explosively chocolaty in your mouth in a second or two.

It's chocolate delivered at Internet speed.

You can buy truffles from most good chocolate shops or even make your own (see recipe). Le Bec-Fin sells a dozen of the restaurant's own exquisite truffles (about 6 ounces) for $15, but the demand is so great that you have to call ahead (215-564-4500) to reserve some.

Chocolate is fragile. Give it too much heat and it separates or "breaks." So the students warmed their portion of chocolate over simmering water. And chocolate melts without showing obvious signs, so they stirred until the chocolate liquefied.

Suddenly, the sweet smell that hung in the air when we entered changed, and was replaced with a thick-sharp tang of chocolate rising from the bowls. Everyone - chefs both old and young - were smiling. When the chocolate was soft, butter was added. The sugar, which was already in paste form, went in, and then the cream and flavors were added to make the thick paste called "ganache" (gah-NOSH).

Ganache has to be cooled in order to be shaped, so each portion in its stainless steel bowl was popped in the refrigerator for a few minutes while the students got a tour of the kitchen and a look at the custom-built machines that form and coat chocolate morsels that make grown people weep.

When the paste hardened, it was formed into balls with a tiny version of an ice cream scoop. This was the messy part, as fingers and white jackets inevitably attracted some chocolate. Next, the balls were rolled in cocoa powder, which is simply chocolate with the fat removed. The cocoa gives your mouth a small, bitter thrill before the warm sweetness of the truffle explodes in it.

The students were intent, there was no chatter, but their faces weren't at all grim. Do the kids in chemistry lab have this much fun? When class was over, the students (much less snowy-white than they were a few hours ago) were ready to leave with little bags of their trophy truffles in hand, when chef Georges Perrier walked in.

Perrier, who just hired a manager so that he could return to cooking and teaching full-time, was in a professorial mood.

"So what did you learn today?" he demanded. No one answered, so he went around the room, asking each student directly. Somebody learned that chocolate is profitable. Someone else, how to fix it when it separates. But the answer that pleases him the best came from Neirissa Croom, a Drexel Culinary sophomore.

"I learned," she said, "that food really is love."

427 Posts
I like that article. In a sense, I do go to a real college. If, by real, you mean one that grants degrees.:)

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