Oh boy! Our first installment of chocolate decoration technique! Hopefully you’ve already checked out my posts on the science of cocoa butter and chocolate tempering. That bit of reading will give you the know-how and skill set to start tackling the wide world of chocolate decoration (known as décor by some). The basics of what you learn in this post and the others like it will be the foundation used to create anything from a simple curl for an eclair to a large, elaborate chocolate showpiece. All chocolate work really is just variations on the same basic principles.
My personal philosophy of chocolate decoration is not to use it on any dessert that doesn’t have chocolate in it. Sure, chocolate decorations are visually exciting and can turn just about anything into an instagram legend, but I don’t like a decoration that doesn’t fit the flavor profile of what it’s decorating. Of course what you make and how you use it in your own kitchen is entirely up to you, you’re in the driver’s seat.
If you are completely new to chocolate work, I would take a little time to practice tempering chocolate. Spending the time, energy and materials to make a decoration only to have it fail because your tempering game isn’t on point is a soul crusher. Temper the chocolate you plan to work with a few times and get a good feel for it before you create anything.
What most cooks don’t realize is that chocolate work is 50% making decorations and 50% managing the chocolate to keep it in temper and cleaning. Chocolate can get everywhere fast, so it’s important to get in the habit of working through a step in the method then taking a few seconds to tidy up and check the temper on your chocolate before moving to the next step. Obviously anything time sensitive needs to be addressed right away – setting chocolate waits for no one – but when you have the gap in time spend it wiping down your tools and arranging your work space back in order, not texting your boo.
Gather all of the tools and equipment you need before getting started with any chocolate. The last thing you want to do is have well tempered chocolate ready to go and then have to scramble around to find that one tool you forgot.
Speaking of equipment, many of the techniques I’ll show you will use a few of the same pieces of equipment. You’ll notice just about all of the components are plastic. Chocolate will stick to glass (plus glass is a general kitchen no-no) and metal is too easy to dent or bend or flex. The first two items – the pipes and acetate sheets – are going to be enough to make lots and lots of decorations for any of you weekend pastry warriors, but feel free to go nuts and get the whole shebang. I’ve outlined some of the basics below and where I get them:
pvc pipes – these are easy to find in any home improvement store and often come in convenient 24”/61cm lengths. I have them in several different diameters to create different curled effects. The pipes are almost always used for potable water supply, and so they are food safe.
acetate sheets – acetate sheets come in various sizes and thicknesses. They are the premier surface to cast chocolate on because they are flexible and easy to move, and will give your chocolate a nice shine. You can get these at art supply stores or of course the webernet.
plexiglass sheets – thick sheets of acrylic, I use plexiglass in my work kitchen because they are nice and flat and don’t bend and flex like a metal sheet pan can. ¼”/.6cm sheets are ideal since anything thicker is too expensive and anything thinner will flex on you when you try to move it, which can crack or ruin your decoration.
These sheets can actually be found in home improvement stores and usually in convenient 18×24”/46x61cm sheets. That size is a bit large for a home kitchen, but cut into two 18×12”/46x30cm piece will work for most needs.
casting bars – when making certain forms or structures out of chocolate, you’ll need to cast the chocolate nice and thick – ¼”/.6cm or thicker. To do this I use plastic bars that act as a sort of dam that I can spread the chocolate between, knowing I’ll have an even sheet of chocolate when it sets.
To start, choose the appropriate pvc pipe for your project. You will need the circumference of this pipe to get the length of your acetate strip, since you will wrap the acetate all the way around the pipe. You can get the circumference using the equation: Circumference = π x diameter. For a pvc pipe with an outside diameter of 2”/5cm this would be about 6.3”/16cm.
To find the length of acetate manually, simply place the pvc pipe on the sheet of acetate and roll the acetate over the pipe. Mark the point at which the acetate connects with itself, just like when you secretly measure your own biceps and/or waste. I give the acetate some overlap, which will give you wiggle room with the chocolate decoration. For a circumference of 6.3”/16cm I would measure the acetate to around 7”/18cm.
Make an equal mark at the other side of the sheet of acetate and then make a straight cut from one mark to the other, giving you your perfectly fit sheet of acetate.
Cut two pieces of parchment paper slightly larger in length than the acetate. For a 7”/18cm piece of acetate, two pieces of parchment about 8-9”/20-23cm will work.
Gather all of the materials you need to make your decoration:
1 tube of pvc pipe (or any pin-shaped object)
1 piece of acetate cut to the appropriate length
2 pieces of parchment paper cut slightly longer than the acetate
1 beater paring knife*
1 offset spatula
1 chocolate scraper
tape (something with light adhesive like masking or painters tape) cut into several 3-4”/8-10cm lengths
1 straight edge
*This is a special type of paring knife that I beat the crap out of, and that makes it perfect for chocolate!
Temper your chocolate and pour it out over the acetate. How much chocolate to use is a matter of practice and necessity. Some decorations will be thinner than others, and the size of acetate will determine all. For this particular decoration I’ve poured out about 1 1/2 8oz/225g ladles of chocolate. That’s really a guess and as accurate a measure as I can give you. This is definitely more art than science.
Spread the chocolate over the acetate and out over the edges as well, which will hold the acetate strip in place and free up both hands to work.
Spread the chocolate evenly over the entire sheet of acetate. Again, this takes practice so don’t get discouraged if it’s less than perfect your first time out! Be excited at the opportunity to learn something new.
Remove the acetate sheet, finding the corner with your paring knife and carefully lifting and placing it to the side, casted chocolate side still facing up!
Use your chocolate scraper to clean the excess chocolate off of the table.
Bring the acetate back into your work zone and wait for it to set slightly – until it turns uniformly mat and doesn’t stick to your finger when touched. This is the point where timing is of the essence. Starting too soon and the chocolate will stick to everything, including itself, and you’ll end up with no working decorations. Waiting too long will allow the chocolate to set firm and you won’t be able to wrap it around the pipe without it cracking.
Using a straight edge, cut ½ – ¾”/1.3-2cm strips (or whatever thickness you’d like) down the length of the acetate. Use light pressure! You’re cutting through a thin layer of soft chocolate, not a block of concrete.
After cutting the strips, sandwich the acetate between the two pieces of parchment paper.
Gently place the pvc pipe on top of the acetate sandwich and roll it all over the pipe.
Hold the parchment in place using the cut pieces of tape. I generally set the tube with the tape edge down touching the table. Now just let the chocolate set up!
When the chocolate is fully set, remove the pvc tube. Removing the tube before the chocolate is fully set will cause the chocolate to continue to contract without anything to support the shape, causing it to over-curl.
Remove both pieces of parchment paper.
When you are ready to use the decoration, remove the acetate sheet by carefully peeling it from the chocolate. If you want to wait to use the decoration, then there’s no better way to store it than neatly connected and protected to the sheet of acetate. Once that sheet is removed, the chocolate is exposed to scuffs and scratches.
Boom. Chocolate rings! Now go make the pastry world a more beautiful place.
Cheers – Chef Scott