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. By using my emulsion technique, by remembering a few rules about melted chocolate, and by following my 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.
Bill Yosses likes to get all the chocolate chopped at the start. Use a serrated knife or the heel of a chef’s knife and have a small stainless-steel bowl handy
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.You can also 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.
Chop the chocolate for the ganache by shaving shards from the bar and then cross-cutting to get chips no bigger than peanuts. Transfer to the bowl. Chop the dipping chocolate the same way and set aside.
For tempered truffles, separate out one-quarter (8 ounces or about 1-1/2-cups) of the chopped dipping chocolate and, using a chef’s knife, chop it into even finer pieces. Set these pieces aside in a bowl separate from the rest of the pile.
Make the ganache
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.
Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate for the ganache.
Photo: Ben Fink
Stir quickly in small, tight circles to start forming the emulsion
Photo: Ben Fink
When you’re ready to pipe, the ganache should be as smooth and as soft as peanut butter (but not as sticky).Photo: Ben Fink
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 (this small amount of liquid won’t make the chocolate seize since it has already been mixed with the liquid cream).