In a high-tech downtown lab, where stainless steel machines rattle and whir, the sweet smell of chocolate pirouettes through the air while 18 students learn to make magic.
A cynic might say the SUNY Schenectady County Community College culinary arts students are really just learning to make chocolate, but there’s magic in that. Think about it: They somehow turn beans into bonbons and chocolate bars.
Chocolate and confections instructor Vanessa Traver is the Willy Wonka of the 2,936-square-foot lab, located in Schenectady’s Mill Artisan District. She said she’s thrilled to teach the art of bean-to-bar chocolate-making in the two-semester chocolate and confections class, which launched at the beginning of the fall semester.
Running this mini chocolate factory is better than what’s depicted in the story “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Traver insisted.
“Obviously, walking in here, you’re not going to see a river of chocolate or anything like that,” she conceded. “But being able to make it is pretty cool. … I think candy, chocolate, confections, sweets — they’re always surrounding a happy moment in your life. I love to teach something that can make someone happy.”
Craft bar chocolate-making is an up-and-coming movement, and there are chocolatier jobs to be had at a growing number of companies that specialize in bean-to-bar chocolate, Traver said.
“I’m glad we got on this bandwagon because it is something that is special. It’s along the lines of wine- and cheesemaking, and that slow-food movement, where we are taking the time to really make something, and understand how a product is made and where it comes from.”
Traver studied the bean-to-bar process at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
“My instructor at the culinary institute, he said, ‘Making chocolate is easy. Making good chocolate is hard.’ The steps are fairly easy, but there are so many little things you can mess up along the way,” she recounted.
Chocolate making has a complicated backstory, something Traver teaches to help students gain a greater appreciation for the commodity they’re producing.
“I show them what an actual cocoa farm looks like. You see these farmers out there with machetes, and that’s still how they harvest cocoa. … It’s a billion-dollar industry and some of these farmers are living off less than a dollar a day. … It’s important that we respect the time and effort these people put into harvesting this, and that we respect the product,” she explained.
Traver and her students use cocoa beans purchased from Chocolate Alchemy, a trader that obtains beans through the fair trade system. This semester, her classes worked mainly with beans from Madagascar, Uganda and Ghana, and studied their nuances.
“The Madagascar beans and the Ghana beans are totally different beans even though they come from a similar section of the world. Madagascar beans tend to have a very fruity-forward flavor. They almost taste like a raspberry when they’re in chocolate, a little bit more on the acidic side. The Ghana beans have these caramel, almost brownie flavors that come through,” Traver explained.
The chocolate-making process has a scientific element to it. Notes are taken throughout to chart roasting and refining times and more.
“All these little factors are going to affect the way the chocolate tastes at the end,” Traver explained.
The confections lab, located on the ground floor of 10 Mills Lane, is stocked with state-of-the-art equipment. Many of the machines are smaller versions of those used by major chocolate manufacturers such as Hershey or Cadbury, Traver noted. Large monitors are mounted throughout the space so that students at each of the 10 production stations have a perfect view of the demonstration station at the front of the room. Classes can also be live-streamed.
Each production station can accommodate two students and is stocked with essentials like pots and pans, a scale, spatulas and a heat gun. Each also has a refrigeration unit, induction burner, mixer and a tabletop melanger used to grind cocoa nibs into chocolate liquor.
During the program’s inaugural semester, students learned to make chocolate bars and bonbons.
It doesn’t take many ingredients to make chocolate — just cocoa nibs, cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla. For milk chocolate, milk powder is also added. The tricky part is the execution, which takes three class sessions and additional processing hours.
First, the cocoa beans are tumbled in a roaster, which can hold about 100 pounds. Once the beans are roasted to the desired degree, the cocoa nibs are separated from their shell in a winnowing machine. Next, nibs are ground with cocoa butter in a melanger until they reach a chocolate liquor state. After 24 hours of processing, micron levels are checked.
“We want to make sure that we’re getting our particles pretty small because that’s what makes chocolate smooth in your mouth,” Traver explained.
Sugar and vanilla are then added to the melanger. If milk chocolate is being made, milk powder goes in as well. The melanger runs for another 24 to 32 hours, depending on the type of chocolate being made. Micron levels are tested again, then the finished chocolate is run through a vibrating sifter that pulls out any nib or sugar particles that didn’t completely break down.
Finally, the chocolate is processed in a conche machine for between 12 and 24 hours. The machine heats and aerates the chocolate, evaporating acidic tones. The chocolate is then hand-tempered — cooled to a precise temperature — on a marble countertop, then molded into bars.
“Chocolate has six different beta crystals that it can form into. We want to get to the fifth beta crystal, because that’s what keeps it nice and shiny, and it snaps and stays solid at room temperature,” Traver explained. “For certain types of chocolate, you have to hit certain temperatures. It was certainly a learning curve for everyone. If they don’t hit it right, it loses its shine and has crystallization on it. It’s not that pretty.”
The star of the show
A stream of melted dark chocolate continuously falls into a chocolate pool in the lab’s tempering machine — kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate waterfall. But this mini version of that fanciful flow has a utilitarian purpose: It keeps chocolate used for making bonbons at an optimal temperature. This semester, students used commercially produced chocolate in their bonbons so they could focus on the molding process and on creating delicious fillings. In anticipation of the holidays, they made seasonal ganache and caramel ones, including raspberry jam, citrus and pumpkin caramel.
“The chocolate really isn’t the star of the show in a bonbon. It’s really the filling. I try to find things that will work well with chocolate and punch out a little further than the chocolate so they are the star of the show,” Traver noted.
She said her students caught on quickly to the chocolate-making process and did an excellent job, but there were a few failures along the way.
“We’ve had a couple batches that didn’t come out the way we expected. They weren’t terrible, but were they great? No. So, you learn as you go,” she said.
In one semester, students made a total of between 100 and 150 chocolate bars and about 500 bonbons. Their bonbons were sold at Pane e Dolci, the campus bakery, through the first week of December. There are plans to have more chocolates for sale there in time for Valentine’s Day and Easter.
The packaging concept for the confections is still a work in progress. The bonbons presently come in a small, rectangular, white cardboard box with a SUNY Schenectady sticker on top. The chocolate bars are housed in a clear, corn-based, compostable packaging material.
“We’re talking about going with gold paper, for that Willy Wonka moment,” Traver said with a grin.
Reach freelance writer Kelly de la Rocha at [email protected]