By Melissa Miller (guest blogger)
Did you ever think it was possible to eat too much chocolate? If you are a chocolate lover, The Chicago Fine Chocolate Festival might just be the challenge for you.
The festival was located on Chicago’s Navy Pier November 16-18th, 2012. Everything from truffles and cupcakes, to chocolate wine and beer filled all five of my senses. With expos at least every hour, displaying everything from the how-to’s of creating the perfect truffle to a tutorial on creating festive chocolate pops, combined with the seemingly endless array of vendors just begging each passerby to sample the range of delicious treats, nobody can go wrong.
During the first demo I saw, Pastry chef Della Gossett from the French Pastry School educated an audience on making bouchon, or a small chocolate cake. After mixing ingredients, she poured batter and let it set so that the gluten would relax. She demonstrated putting the bouchon into a flex non-stick mold (which you can conveniently buy around the corner.) Later, you can add chocolate chips or nuts for flavor. When she finished, she passed out samples, and I tasted the rich chocolate in what appeared to be similar to a mini-brownie, but the taste cannot be compared to anything I have ever attempted to buy or make.
Later, Gosset shared some of her secrets for what ended up being the best truffles I have ever dared to look at. She started with a three-cocoa paste, cocoa butter, and sugar. As she mixed together the ingredients, I thought about how much practice it must take to know the temperament of chocolate. She took a small amount of ganash, essentially the batter, and added it to the butter. Then she took the new mixture and added it to the rest of the ganash. She added a little rum and stirred. I learned about the crystallization of the chocolate and how to put it in plastic with no air so that it does not form a skin. Later, she demonstrated how to roll and shape the perfect truffle. Indeed, they really were perfect in the end.
Afterward, I saw a demonstration on chocolate owl pops. Pastry Chef Beth Kimmerle, also the author of Chocolate: The Sweet History, showed how to use a plastic mold to make beautiful and delicious treats for young chocolate lovers. The kit they sold included everything needed including the plastic mold, the chocolate and decorating supplies.
Beyond the demonstrations, it was an experience enough to pay visits to all of the chocolate vendors there. I learned the vast range of flavors chocolate candies and truffles can contain. I tried everything from brandy filled truffles to chipotle-flavored treats. Small edible coffee cups made with peppermint and lemoncello (an Italian lemon liquor,) espresso-flavored chocolate, among other creative and tempting combinations equally caught my attention. I had Mayan chocolate, and chocolates flavored with cinnamon, Chile pepper, pumpkin, red velvet- the list goes on. Beyond just chocolates and candy, I also tried a coffee-like concoction made with Chile-fermented cocoa beans. It tasted like a mix between a hot cocoa and a coffee.
Speaking of liquid chocolate, I was especially impressed with the amount of love that goes into the making of a good chocolate wine. Not only does chocolate wine exist, but it takes many forms. Some are made to be especially sweet, some made with dark chocolate, some with fruit. Vendors happily handed samples to a growing crowd, explaining how it is made. In addition to the wines, I tried some chocolate liquor. The representative gave out recipes for cocktails made with the touch of chocolate.
Icing Smiles, a nonprofit organization, provides critically ill children with beautiful custom cakes for special occasions, donated by local bakeries and pastry chefs. During the festival, they had a competition to raise money for their mission. These pieces of art were no ordinary cakes. One cake was made to look like Cinderella’s coach, and another looked like the Mad Hatter made it for Alice.
One of my favorite visuals of the festival was the chocolate sculpture. The artists explained that chocolate is a unique medium to work with because it takes on the characteristics of any material that it is molded onto. As a result, artists find a wide range of textures that make working with chocolate forgiving and rewarding. Surprisingly, chocolate can look exactly like a piece of wood or a smooth piece of metal. An artist from the French Pastry School worked during the festival, showing the meticulous process that goes into chocolate sculpting.
The Chicago Chocolate Festival had a plethora of chocolate and learning to offer everyone. Beyond just tasting, I learned the many forms chocolate can come in, a little about how to bake, how it is used in sculpture, and how a non-profit can make a difference for kids with a little sugar. They had a variety of great demonstrations and plenty more vendors than I needed to visit in one day . A sweet time was had by all. You can come back for more chocolate in Chicago October of next year.