Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A delicious visit inspires

A delectable specialty of my favorite chocolatier is his caramels. Such a simple concoction: sugar, cream, and butter. And yet... all my gourmandise of my younger years comes to the fore when I am confronted with this beautiful, smooth warm-toned merveille.

Joël Durand's main shop is in St. Rémy de Provence: a hub of tempting smells, shelves of delights to the eye and the tongue, and a very friendly welcome. I come here for gifts for friends back home, for a little something to put by my computer while I work (a reward here and there encourages creativity, n'est-ce pas?). And of course, I bring my guests.

A whirlwind of movement and ambition, Joël comes up with new candies and confections every year. From an alphabet of flavored ganâche filled chocolates to cocoas to toasted almonds, crunchy caramel and chocolate to confitures and -- my favorite -- delicate chocolate cookies topped with flavored, oozing caramel (orange, lavender, liquorice, chocolate, salted butter, hazelnut...) and dipped in crisp, shiny dark chocolate. Yes... I do have an Achille's heel, I must admit.

I took my clients by yesterday, and obtained the rare permission to visit the laboratory (this used to be a bit easier to do, but it is now run like the proverbial ship and where once there were lovely bits of "waste" to nibble, there are no longer. An impressive change has taken place -- for the better -- but this may mean fewer visits... I'll see what the future brings).

We arrived shortly after lunch, and watched as the workers got into the swing of their afternoon recipes. One was making caramel (hmmmmm), while another simmered and infused fresh rosemary in a simple syrup, mixing it in a high-speed blender, and sieving it through a chinois for a rosemary-infused ganache chocolate and a rosemary-infused bar chocolate. In another room, a young woman was filling her bar molds with freshly tempered chocolate. All were cleaning impectably as they went along. The scene oozed focus, quietly and methodically applied.

I've been visiting behind the scenes for ten years now at Joël Durand's shop, and I must say, gorgeous creations have always been the order of the day, but rarely before was it such a serious workplace. I miss the friendly banter of yesteryear and some of the early employees trained on the job. But, if getting things ship shape, eliminating waste, perfecting the methods and improving production help keep the business thriving and the current employees employed, Chapeau!

As we continued to observe, the hive hummed busily along. Other recipes were begun, including one of my favorites -- the honey ganache. I noted that it is made with lots of cream and butter much like so many others, but the quantities? I'll have to guess, or look up another chocolatier's recipe, as here, they are tightly held secrets!

A Basic Caramel:

Looking around for proportions, Simply Recipes suggests the following for a basic caramel. I added chocolate to my successful attempt this evening; and yes, these are pretty much the proportions I used (I confess to eye-balling it, something a proper pastry chef would never do!):

* 1 cup of sugar
* 6 Tbsp butter
* 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
-- optional, a few squares of high quality dessert chocolate -- I put in 4.

After watching at the laboratory however, I would put the cream before the butter, as the pastry-worker I observed added his cream before the butter. And, if nothing else, I'm a quick study! It is a simple recipe, but one that requires having all ingredients on hand, quick responsiveness and a sharp eye and nose.

Melt the sugar in a heavy bottomed sauce pan (if making lots, a large copper jam pot works great). With a wooden spoon stir and press out the lumps. When it is fully melted and starts bubbling, watch carefully! Let it get darker -- this is where the flavor comes in -- till you see le petit fumé, the small smoke.

Then add the cream. It will foam up dramatically. Stir and stir till it is smoothe again. Let it color some more, then remove the pan from the heat and put in all the butter. Apparently, you don't need to stir immediately -- the butter will cool down the caramel a bit. Stir in the butter, and -- if you wish -- add your chocolate. Stir till it all comes together and then either pour it into a jar, or over ice cream, whichever suits you. -- a poached pear or some apple slices are a possibility as well.

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