I've been cooking off and on both professionally and at home for the last 15 years, but chocolate has never interested me. It always seemed too finicky, too exacting, too fickle a food to fuss with. Outside of melting down a bar of Ghirardelli for my husband's favorite chocolate-pecan pie every Thanksgiving, I stayed out of it.
But when the opportunity came to spend a few hours in the kitchen with executive pastry chef Joshua Cain making molded chocolate, I couldn't pass it up. Cain helms the sweet side of the revamped kitchens at the Caribe Royal in Orlando, Fla., a recently-renovated mega resort near Walt Disney World.
He's also a chocolate nut.
Cain's passion for creating dramatic molded chocolate sculptures and desserts with molded chocolate elements is well-known. He previously created chocolate masterpieces like an 11-foot Saturn V rocket to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon-landing, which was comprised of 4,000 total pounds of chocolate.
When I walked into the area of the kitchen that will soon be used for a special chocolate experience guests will be able to book in the coming months, Cain and his team were working on a 250-pound replica of the Orlando skyline for an upcoming conference. I asked if he was using molds he'd ordered, and he told me he makes his own from household and kitchen items. The Ferris wheel located at Orlando's ICON Park was one of the elements in the sculpture. Cain let me in on the secret: The giant chocolate wheel was cast using one of those classic pleated Tupperware lids. Mind blown.
The pastry kitchen at the Caribe Royale is now chocolate-making ground zero, complete with a chocolate room that houses Cain's tempering machine, marble slabs for molding and cabinets full of silicone and plaster molds, including one of Michael Keaton's head ... for a Batman showpiece he once created.
Last year, Cain wowed guests with a 32-foot chocolate Christmas train, displayed in the hotel's lobby. This year, he'll add a life-sized Santa Claus, sleigh and reindeer. The display will go up right after Thanksgiving and remain throughout the holidays. At the hotel's recently-reopened signature fine dining restaurant, The Venetian Chop House, Cain has created a molded chocolate sphere dessert that's lit on fire using caramel liqueur as it's brought to the table. He also just returned from a week in Paris, where he formulated bespoke chocolate bars to be exclusively sold and used at the hotel.
On my visit, we tasted 15 different types of chocolate and Cain explained which ones are best for certain preparations, including molding. His biggest tip for those who want to try this at home? "Get the best quality chocolate you can find," he says. (Both of Cain's favorite top-quality chocolates, Callebaut and Valrhona, are available on Amazon.) Without good quality chocolate, he says your molds are doomed from the start. Candy melts, available at most craft stores, will work fine, but won't have a depth of flavor anywhere near what you can achieve with quality chocolate.
Chocolate requires tempering in order to achieve the perfect texture and temperature for molding. But if you're molding at home, chances are you won't have a fancy tempering machine like the one in the Caribe's kitchen, or a marble slab, needed for tempering by hand. The next best thing, according to Cain, is melting the chocolate very slowly in the microwave — not over a double boiler as I originally thought. "Just 10 seconds at a time, then stir it a little bit," he tells Yahoo Life. "It might look like it's not melting, but things are happening in the chemical makeup of the chocolate that starts the process, so distributing the heat by stirring is essential."
Prepping your mold is also essential, according to Cain, who uses Everclear (a high-proof grain alcohol) to polish his molds prior to each use. "Any kind of dirt or imperfection on your mold will make it incredibly difficult when it's time to remove the chocolate from the mold," he says.
Once you pour the melted chocolate into the molds, make sure to get all air pockets out of the chocolate by lightly tapping the mold on a hard surface until you see bubbles come to the surface and pop. Cain's machine has an agitator setting that helps with this, but the same thing can be achieved with a few confident raps on the kitchen counter.
The ideal temperature for setting chocolate is about 65 F, but it's essential that you remove the chocolate from the mold as soon as it has fully set, usually overnight at room temperature. "Chocolate will shrink and curl as it cools, so it's important to remove the chocolate from the mold before that happens," says Cain. When you're ready to un-mold the chocolate, it will start to pull away from the mold, which is the point where you can pop the chocolate right out out.
Store your chocolate at room temperature to ensure the chocolate stays at the correct texture. "If you store your chocolate in the refrigerator, it's ruined," says Cain. Moisture in the fridge can lead to "sugar bloom," meaning the sugar rises to the surface and discolors the chocolate. Chocolate also tends to absorb odor from whatever is around it, so if you're storing chocolate around onions, you might end up with slightly oniony (or garlicky or fishy) chocolate.
"I love chocolate because it's such a versatile medium," says Cain. "You can mold it, you can sculpt with it, you can make bars and bonbons and desserts. I love where it comes from and how it's grown and how it becomes chocolate — it's so complicated and scientific and fascinating from the time it goes from the cacao pod to a bar."
I'll add another reason to love chocolate to Cain's list: It just makes you happy.
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