In 1985, I began an apprenticeship at La Maison du Chocolat in Paris. A few days into it, Robert Linxe, my mentor and La Maison’s owner, offered me a small, round chocolate truffle. I bit into it. The brittle shell split open with a satisfying crack, revealing a melty, smooth ganache filling. A wave of deep bittersweet chocolate washed over me, and in its wake came a gentle ripple of fresh mint. Yes, I thought, that’s a Mint Chocolate Truffle all right—capital M, capital C, capital T.
Truffles are, or should be, like that—the essence of chocolate, concentrated in one bite. Like an intense but fleeting romance, the memory of a terrific truffle can linger for years. At least it did for me. Although I learned to make a lot of other chocolate confections during my apprenticeship, I never fell as hard as I did for that first truffle.
The best part is that I’ve learned to recreate that sublime chocolate experience time and again, and so can you. Truffles are made in two steps: first you make the chocolate ganache centers, and then you dip those centers into melted, tempered chocolate. Of course, you can add other flavors, as Robert Linxe did with that fateful mint truffle I tasted in Paris, but when I’m in my most chocolate mood, nothing beats a classic chocolate truffle.
If the thought of tempering chocolate keeps you up at night, you won’t lose sleep over these truffles. Tempered chocolate will give the truffles a wonderful shine and snap, but tempering isn’t mandatory. If you don’t mind storing them in the fridge, you can still make impressive truffles at home without tempering.
What sets these truffles apart from others are their velvety soft interiors, which I achieve by using a higher than usual proportion of cream to chocolate for the ganache. Because the ganache is so delicate, it needs a little extra care. But I never have a problem as long as I handle the ganache like the emulsion that it is, right from the start.
Working with chocolate can feel precarious at times, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In this article, you’ll read an overview of the process. By using my emulsion technique, by remembering a few rules about melted chocolate, and by following the step-by-step photos and detailed instructions in the recipe, you’ll soon find yourself turning out truffles like a pro.
Start with top-quality chocolate and a dry work surface
To make a sensational chocolate truffle, you have to start with sensational chocolate. How can you tell the difference? My favorite way is to just taste it, but if that’s not possible, check the label for the percentage of cocoa solids. More cocoa solids usually translates into more intense chocolate flavor and less sweetness.
I use chocolate with at least 60 percent cocoa solids, but good truffles can be made with 55 percent. Lindt “Excellence” and Valrhona are safe bets, not only for their flavor, but also because they seem to be more fluid—and therefore easier to work with—when melted.
Chocolate doesn’t like small amounts of liquid, although it does fine with larger amounts (anything over 25 percent of the weight of the chocolate is fine). A few drops of water that accidentally splash into a bowl of melted chocolate can cause the chocolate to clump up, or seize, and become unworkable. To avoid this, start with a super-dry work surface, be fastidious about using dry utensils, and have a towel handy.
It doesn’t matter what tool you use to chop the chocolate, as long as you get small enough pieces. I’ve seen plenty of apprentices break off the tips of good chef’s knives while trying to chop a block of chocolate. Don’t follow their example—use the heel of the knife. The chore of chopping (and I won’t lie: it is a chore) is a bit more speedy using a serrated knife—preferably not your best one, since the chopping is bad for the knife.
At Bouley Bakery in New York, we use an ice pick to break up blocks of chocolate. If you use a food processor, first chop the chocolate into chestnut-size pieces and then process with pulses, taking care that the chocolate doesn’t start to melt. Whatever method you use, chop until you get peanut-size pieces. Small, fairly uniform pieces ensure that the chocolate will melt quickly and evenly.
Energetic mixing builds an emulsion
The key to this soft, smooth ganache is to create an emulsion, which simply means that the droplets of fat from the chocolate and cream are evenly dispersed in liquid. The technique I use is an energetic, controlled mixing. I’ve recently switched utensils, from a whisk to a wooden spoon, for an even denser, creamier ganache. A small stainless-steel bowl is ideal—a small bowl helps support the emulsion, and stainless steel is a good heat conductor.
Begin stirring in a very tight circle in the center of the bowl. A thick, dark pool of melted chocolate will form in the center, surrounded by a ragged moat of cream. Keep stirring only in the center until the small pool of chocolate turns shiny and viscous. At that point, the emulsion is established, and you can gradually widen the circle, pulling in more cream a bit at a time.
As soon as all the cream has been incorporated, stop stirring. This ganache doesn’t benefit from extra air, and excessive agitation can actually break the emulsion. For those reasons, I don’t recommend using a food processor. If the emulsion does break, you can salvage it by transferring one-third of the ganache to a separate bowl and whisking it vigorously while adding a few tablespoons of very hot cream. Once the emulsion returns, gradually ladle in the rest of the broken ganache, whisking all the while.
Once the ganache is made, be gentle with it. Temperature extremes can wreck an emulsion. When the ganache has cooled to room temperature, ease in the butter, also at room temperature. You need to mash the butter first into a soft, smooth paste, called a pommade, by beating it with a wooden spoon. Stir in the liqueur a bit at a time (the small amount of liquid won’t make the chocolate seize since it has already been mixed with the liquid cream).
I use a pastry bag to pipe the ganache into truffle centers. If you don’t have one, use a strong freezer bag and snip one corner to get a 1/2-inch opening. To pipe, use your dominant hand to press on the bag while the other hand guides the tip. Aim for spheres, but it’s all right if you get irregular blobs; it just means a little more time shaping. After briefly chilling the centers in the fridge, you’ll roll the centers between your palms to round out the shape. You can store the piped and shaped ganache centers, covered in plastic for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Melt the chocolate; hold your temper
The first task before dipping is to organize your workspace. Set up an assembly line that includes the baking sheet of shaped centers, the bowl of melted or tempered chocolate (I’ll cover that in a moment), another parchment-lined sheet for the just-dipped truffles, and, if you’re rolling the truffles in cocoa, a shallow dish of cocoa powder.
There are lots of ways to melt chocolate. Most pastry chefs these days use a microwave. I don’t. A microwave is fine if you’ve learned (often by trial and error) how high to go and for how long, but otherwise, it’s too easy to burn the chocolate. I use the time-honored double-boiler method, which is safer and almost as fast as the microwave.
Use a medium-size shallow bowl over a small saucepan. The bowl must be big enough to rest firmly on the saucepan so that no steam escapes, but it should also be small enough to maintain a well of chocolate for dipping. The water in the bottom saucepan should be hot but not simmering, so remember to take the pan off the heat before you set the bowl of chocolate on top. Also remember that steam is no friend of chocolate. Every time you lift the bowl off the saucepan, wipe the bottom dry.
Decide if you want to temper. Tempered chocolate has a professional-looking sheen, snaps cleanly, and is less likely to wilt at room temperature (because it has a higher melting point). If those are important qualities for your truffles, you’ll want to temper the chocolate you use for dipping. All you’ll need are an accurate chocolate thermometer and a calm disposition. Store-bought chocolate has been tempered during manufacturing. When you melt it, as you must do to dip the truffles, the chocolate loses its temper. To regain its temper, the chocolate must be heated, cooled, and then very gently warmed as described below. Tempering chocolate is an intuitive science. Because I do it every day, I know when the chocolate is in temper by sight and by touch. But beginners will need to monitor the thermometer closely, first to get the chocolate in temper, and then to maintain it.
The tempering process is as follows:
• Melt the chocolate to between 120° and 125°F. Do this over a pan of hot water, stirring the chocolate with a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon.
• Cool the melted chocolate to 86°F. There are several ways to do this, but one of the simplest is to add very finely chopped pieces of tempered chocolate to the melted chocolate and stir them around. This process, known as seeding, floods the melted chocolate with tempered cocoa-butter crystals, which encourage more of those same crystals to form. It’s important that you use storebought chocolate (which has already been tempered) for this step. Stop adding chocolate when the shavings are no longer melting and the temperature has dropped to 86°F or slightly lower.
• Warm the chocolate—very carefully—to between 88° and 91°F. To raise the temperature only a few degrees, you will “flash” the bowl over the pan of hot water for ten seconds, wipe the bottom of the bowl dry, check the temperature, and flash again as necessary.
• Maintain the chocolate between 88° and 91°F. In this range, the chocolate is in temper and ready for dipping. Outside of this range, it’s at risk of losing its temper. Don’t worry about the chocolate that hardens on the sides of the bowl during dipping. It’s more important to maintain the pool of tempered chocolate in the center. You’ll probably have leftover chocolate after dipping. Save it for the next batch of ganache, or for eating. After dipping, the chocolate will contain trace amounts of cream, which means it’s not fit for another tempering session.
Dip, tap, and roll
Whether your melted chocolate is tempered or not, the final step—the dipping—is the most thrilling. But unless you want to end up like Lucille Ball in the famous runaway chocolate candies episode of I Love Lucy, it’s critical that you stay organized and work quickly.
Your assembly line should be set up by the time the chocolate is ready for dipping. You’ll need a fork to dip. Choose one with thin tines so the melted chocolate drips off more easily. Professional truffle forks have very thin, very light tines; you can simulate that effect by bending back two tines of an old cafeteria fork or by breaking off the middle tines of a plastic fork.
For untempered truffles, it’s a good idea to roll the dipped truffle in cocoa powder. You could also try ground nuts, coconut, or confectioners’ sugar. Besides adding another texture, the coating masks the untempered truffle’s duller finish. I like to leave tempered truffles unrolled to flaunt their glossy, smooth shells.
If “feet” have formed on the truffle, it means you haven’t tapped off enough of the excess chocolate. Just snap off the feet when the chocolate has set.
Tempered truffles will keep for three days at room temperature. Store them in a cool, dry place, preferably with low humidity. In the refrigerator, they’ll last for about a week or in the freezer for up to a month (their centers will firm up somewhat). Untempered truffles must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Store all refrigerated and frozen truffles in airtight containers to prevent condensation. Remove them an hour or two before serving, keeping them covered until they reach room temperature.
Try another truffle
After getting the hang of classic chocolate truffles, you can experiment with other flavors. You can modify the ganache by using another liqueur, adding a fruit purée, or steeping herbs in the cream.
• To add fruit to the ganache, purée fresh ripe fruit and strain out any fibers or seeds. Try raspberries, mangos, apricots, passionfruit, sour cherries, or any fruit with strong flavors and not too much acidity.
• To use herbs, steep them in the hot cream for 20 minutes; strain them out. Remeasure the cream (the herbs will have absorbed some of the liquid), correct the measurement with more cream, and add it to the chopped chocolate. Try fresh mint, basil, licorice-flavored hissop, or dried teas like Earl Grey and jasmine.