During most winters in the 1980s, I participated in the Chef’s Holiday program at Yosemite National Park. In exchange for a few nights at the very grand 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel (now the Majestic Hotel), all I had to do was demonstrate a few desserts in the hotel’s great hall, provide tastes, and socialize with guests at dinner. In the dead of January, Yosemite is a blissfully un-crowded and snowy wonderland—stunning but glacial.
One year, I decided to demonstrate my favorite French chocolate almond torte. The Queen of Sheba (aka Reine de Saba) is so rich and chocolaty that it must be kept at room temperature. Chilling hardens its luxurious texture, diminishes its aroma and flavor—and dulls its glossy, bittersweet glaze. The Queen of Sheba may not have been the wisest choice for a winter road trip—I needed to travel with enough dessert to serve over a hundred guests. On the appointed day, a dozen torts were perfectly coated with chocolate butter glaze, all of which had gorgeous sheens when they went into their boxes. The only way to preserve the gloss during the 3-4 hour drive from Berkeley was to crank up the car heater and wrap down-filled sleeping bags around the cake boxes. (I also traveled with a hair dryer, just in case!) Keeping the cakes from catching cold was the mantra for that road trip—our comfort came second. The things we do for love—or glaze.
I still catch my breath when I pour a beautiful molten chocolate glaze over a crumb-coated torte or dip éclairs into it. I‘m (still!) always triumphant when my perfect pour dries with a satiny sheen rather than dull or streaky.
As it turns out, the perfect glaze is all about temperature. Here are two tips for achieving the best looking chocolate glaze in the first place, and a cheat for bringing back the shine—with a hair dryer—when things don’t go your way.
A cake or torte needs to be stored and served at room temperature should be at room temperature (not chilled, never still warm from the oven) when you glaze it. It will look the best on the same day you glaze it. I often bake in advance—letting flavor improve over a couple of days—and then glaze on the day I plan to serve. If a glazed cake sits overnight in a chilly kitchen, it may dull.
A cake or dessert that must be refrigerated (because it filled with mousse or cream) should be refrigerated (and completely chilled) before glazing, and should be returned to the fridge immediately after glazing to set the glaze quickly. Done properly, ganache and chocolate butter glazes will set with an even but matte, rather than shiny, finish in the fridge—expect less shine on a cold cake than a room temperature cake. But you can restore some shine if you remove the dessert from the fridge 30-60 minutes before serving—which is usually a good practice for cold desserts anyway.
I get the best sheen with a pourable ganache glaze if it is between 90 and 100° F when I pour it—over a chilled cake that will be returned to the fridge, or over a room temperature cake that will remain at room temperature.
I get the best sheen with my favorite chocolate butter glaze if I pour it when it’s 88-90° F. (My standard chocolate butter glaze is 4 ounces of unsalted butter melted gently with 6 ounces dark chocolate and 1 tablespoon of honey, golden syrup, or corn syrup and a couple pinches of salt.) I use a slight variation for éclairs and any cakes or desserts that are kept refrigerated.
Say you transported a perfectly glazed chocolate torte to Yosemite in January and failed to wrap it down and turn up the heat in the car, or say you were in too big a hurry wait for glaze cool to 90 degrees before you poured it. One way or another, you’ve got a delicious but dull looking chocolate dessert.
Plan B involves your hair dryer and a great deal of restraint.
The idea is to warm the air around the cake enough to barely soften the fats in the butter (or cream) and chocolate so that the chocolate no longer appears dull. The fix is temporary—it will last just long enough to present and serve the dessert. Here’s how to do it: Set the hair dryer on the lowest warm setting. Starting at least 3 feet from the surface of the cake (far enough to avoid creating melted puddles of glaze) keep the dryer moving constantly over the cake until the glaze begins to look moist and shiny rather than cold and dull. If you are not getting results, move in a little closer—use restraint here. Have patience and don’t over do it!