Who doesn’t love getting the maximum bang for the buck—especially oohs and aahs at the table for something chocolate (and fancy-looking), that’s way simpler to do than it looks?
Fifteen years ago, I created several cake recipes for a 2002 edition of Fine Cooking magazine. One of the recipes cried out for a photogenic, even dramatic, chocolate garnish. (Thinking back, I was probably scheming to get that cake on the cover!) I needed a wow factor—something festive and fancy—but it had to be doable for a home cook.
But even in 2002, everyone had seen perfect chocolate curls on magazine covers, and they just seemed too prim and “normal” for the occasion. I wanted something brand new, free-form, and potentially dramatic. Pastry chefs routinely spread melted chocolate over sheet pans, wait until the chocolate is set to the exact right consistency, and then use a metal spatula (and considerable sleight of hand) to scrape up ruffles and ribbons and all kinds of extravagant shapes. This requires endless practice with oodles of chocolate just to learn, not to mention a zillion words to describe.
What could I do to capture the spirit and free form of a pastry chef’s decorations without requiring a pastry chef's skills?
My first thought was an old food styling trick for making chocolate curls: Melt chocolate with a little shortening, chill the mixture in the form of a thick bar, then use the peeler to make easy and perfect chocolate curls! Unlike stylists, I always use good chocolate and clarified butter or ghee rather than hydrogenated vegetable shortening, because I expect people to eat rather than simply photograph my curls. Either way, it’s impressive and easy enough for any home baker.
After fooling around in the kitchen for a while, I spread a thin coat of melted chocolate, paper thin, on a sheet of wax paper, smoothed a second sheet of wax paper over the chocolate, then rolled the whole thing up into a tight roll and slipped it into the fridge. When I unrolled the cold sheet quickly, the chocolate split into long wafer thin, curved shards that were wide or narrow depending on how tightly the paper-encased chocolate was rolled! Magic.
A whole new chocolate trick was born. It never occurred to me to mention that I invented the method— my editor probably had no idea. I published the technique again myself ten years later in my cookbook Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts. Though it’s completely lost its provenance along the way, I’m very proud to see the technique published over and over again, as though it’s just another trick from some ancient archive of chocolate tricks.
Below, you'll find how-to's on how to make those curls and shards:
Use two or three layers of aluminum foil to make a mini pan that’s about 3 inches long, 1 1/2 inches wide, and 1 1/2 inches tall; you can form this around a stick of butter! If you make a wider form, just cut the chocolate block to match the width of your vegetable peeler blade, as shown above.
Chop 6 ounces of any dark chocolate (or use chocolate chips) and put it into a stainless steel bowl with 1-1 1/2 teaspoons of clarified butter or ghee (or 1 tablespoon of vegetable shortening—but not margarine).
Set the bowl in a wide skillet of almost simmering water. Stir frequently until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Scrape the mixture into the foil pan. Chill for at least 2 hours or until firm.
Remove the chocolate from the fridge and set it aside for 10-15 minutes to soften slightly. Peel the foil sides away from it and scrape the bar firmly with a vegetable peeler to make cigarettes or curls. If the shapes splinter or crack, the chocolate is too cold—wait for a few minutes and try again. If chocolate becomes too soft, return it to the fridge for a few minutes to firm up. Handle curls and cigarettes with a skewer or toothpick to prevent fingerprints. Curls and the rest of the chocolate may be stored in the fridge for weeks (the former in an airtight container and the latter wrapped airtight, or longer in the freezer.
Your knife, bowl, and spatula should be clean and dry.
Chop 3 ounces of any dark, milk or white chocolate (but not chocolate chips) and put it into a stainless steel bowl. If using dark chocolate, set the bowl in a wide skillet of almost simmering water. If using milk or white chocolate, turn the heat off under the skillet and wait for 60 seconds before setting the bowl of chocolate into it. Stir frequently until the chocolate is almost completely melted. Remove the bowl from the skillet, wipe the bottom of the bowl dry, and stir to finish melting the chocolate.
Tear off two 16-inch lengths of wax paper (parchment will not produce the sheen that you get from wax paper). Scrape all of the chocolate onto one sheet, and use an offset metal spatula (a rubber spatula will do in a pinch) to spread the chocolate in an even layer, a bit thinner than the cover of a file folder. Cover with the second wax paper sheet and smooth it over the chocolate with your hands. Starting at a short end, roll the paper and chocolate up into a thin tube, 1 inch or even less in diameter. The diameter of the tube will affect the curve of the shards—you could roll the paper around a thick dowel or thin cardboard tube if you like, but it’s not necessary. Refrigerate the tube (wedged between milk cartons or something to prevent unrolling) for at least two hours to harden the chocolate completely.
When the chocolate is hard, clear a space on the counter and have a thin metal spatula and a tray at hand. Remove the tube from the fridge and immediately and quickly unroll it on the counter to crack the chocolate into long curved shards. Remove the top sheet of wax paper and turn it clean side up on the tray. Slide a thin metal spatula under the chocolate shards to release them from the wax paper, and slide them onto the tray. Refrigerate until needed.
Shards keep indefinitely, refrigerated in an airtight container. The warmth of your fingers will easily soften or melt them, so handle with a spatula or tongs!
What would you add shards or curls to? Let us know in the comments!