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A Crash Course in Chocolate Fountains
You’re having a party! Maybe it’s a Sweet Sixteen, or a wedding reception, or a family reunion. You’ll need to feed people, of course, and during the discussions, someone suggests that you have a chocolate fountain. Now, there’s something to think about. After all, they look impressive, and, well, it’s chocolate! Do you need any other reason to have one at your gathering? But how do chocolate fountains work?
If you don’t know, a chocolate fountain is a mechanical fountain (like a water fountain) that allows melted chocolate to cascade down in a controlled manner over metal tiers (as a rule, larger chocolate fountains can support a greater number of tiers). This produces a showy “waterfall” effect, and, better still, you and your guests get to eat the “waterfall” by dipping edibles into the chocolate stream. A chocolate fountain contains a heating element internally to keep the melted chocolate at a good “flow” temperature. Like a waterfall, the melted chocolate begins its journey in a bottom reservoir; it’s lifted internally up to the fountain top by a pump or auger mechanism. Once the melted chocolate flows down over the tiers, it returns to the bottom reservoir and starts the process all over again.
Should you purchase a chocolate fountain for your celebration? It is quite possible for home consumers to buy chocolate fountains, but good-quality fountains can be expensive. Trying to cut costs by buying a cheap model is simply “penny wise, pound foolish”, as the old saying goes; you’ll only end up disappointed, or spending more money in the long run. Think about the number of guests you’ll have (that will determine the size of the fountain, as well as the amount of chocolate you’ll need). Do you often host gatherings with a similar number of people? Are you willing to thoroughly clean your chocolate fountain after each use? If the answer to either question is “probably not”, it might be better to rent a chocolate fountain, a task which has become considerably easier in recent years, thanks to the popularity of these items.
What about the chocolate? Every manufacturer of chocolate fountains, every place that rents them, every troubleshooting guide, all warn of the same thing: do not expect that you can just pick up supermarket chocolate to use in your fountain! There are chocolates specially formulated for fountains, and those are recommended by some manufacturers; others insist you can use any good couverture (always follow instructions for the specific chocolate fountain you buy or rent). Couvertures (and chocolates specially formulated for fountains) differ from most other chocolate. Part of the difference is that they contain a greater percentage of fat, which may be cocoa butter or vegetable oil. That’s important, because chocolate, even melted, is too thick to work well in a fountain. Extra cocoa butter or vegetable oil thins the chocolate enough so it can be drawn up the internal chamber and cascade properly over the tiers. However, in my opinion, vegetable oil lowers the quality of the chocolate. Were I using a chocolate fountain for any purpose, I would try my best to use a chocolate with extra cocoa butter. You can melt your chocolate in the fountain if you wish, but it will probably take longer than you like; most sources I’ve seen advise melting the chocolate (in a microwave or double boiler) before putting it into the fountain. And by the way, one company’s website tells you that “the process of melting chocolate is called ‘tempering’”. Untrue! Melting chocolate and tempering it are two very different processes, although tempering begins with melted chocolate.
If you’re wondering what to dip into your cascading melted chocolate, think about foods that pair well with chocolate fondue: marshmallows, strawberries, pineapple chunks, caramels, cream puffs, grapes, small squares of fudge, orange segments, and the like. You might also try cookies, graham cracker sections, pound cake cubes, or pretzels, but you need to be careful about crumbs. Crumbs or small bits of food can clog your chocolate fountain, so that the chocolate doesn’t flow properly. You can always provide small cups, which your guests can fill from the fountain, then dip any crumbly items into the cup.
It’s crucial that a chocolate fountain be on a level surface when operating. If it isn’t, the chocolate won’t cascade properly over the tiers, leaving gaps in the flow, or it might not operate at all. Air can get caught in the system, which will dramatically slow the flow of chocolate (fortunately, this has a simple solution; you simply shut the fountain off for a few minutes, then start it back up again). You must also be careful about temperature. Cold is not the friend of melted chocolate! If you place your fountain in a draft from a window or door, or under an air conditioning vent, the chocolate might cool down too much (and become too thick) to flow well. If the room in which you want to use the fountain is too cool, the same thing might occur. And operating a chocolate fountain outdoors probably isn’t a good idea, even on a nice, warm day. The same breezes that might cool the chocolate down excessively could also blow it away from its normal downward path. And cascading, sweet-smelling, melted chocolate is the insect equivalent of an engraved invitation! If you’re dipping your food directly into the chocolate, for reasons of hygiene, it’s always nicer to use skewers rather than fingers.
Did you know that chocolate fountains can be used for more than just chocolate? How about a cascade of warm, melted caramel? For a savory twist, try a smooth salad dressing in your fountain, served with raw veggies. Chic, delicious, and it might even be cool enough to get the kids in the group to eat their vegetables! As a bonus, you’ll get some nutrition and fiber along with your calories.
No matter whether you buy or rent, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s or rental agency’s instructions for your chocolate fountain. By doing so, your fountain can become the highlight of your celebration, and you’ll make sure your memories of that day are sweet ones.
Here are three fountain manufacturers:
1) The American Chocolate Fountain (R) from the USA at www.chocolatefonduefountains.com
2) Sephra Chocolate Fountains from the USA at www.sephrafountains.com
3) Design and Realisation, Inc. from Canada at
Recipe of the Month:
Chocolate Cheesecake Minis
Year in and year out, cheesecake is one of the two most popular desserts I make (truffles are the other). You bake these miniature cheesecakes in foil baking cups for standard-sized muffin tins; the foil cups can either be placed in muffin tins or set on a baking sheet (baking time doesn’t seem to alter with one method or the other). It’s important not to overbake these; they’ll lose their lovely creamy texture if you do. Incidentally, do use foil baking cups here; I haven’t tried baking these in paper muffin cups, so I’m not sure if that will work.
These are not difficult or complicated to make, and they’ll sit happily in the fridge for at least a week, if stored airtight. Like most cheesecakes, they freeze well. These would be a great dessert for almost any informal occasion. If you want to dress up these minis, make your favorite chocolate ganache glaze, and top each cheesecake with a spoonful or so (just enough to cover the top with a thin layer). Before the glaze sets, sprinkle on a few miniature semisweet chocolate chips. Make a point to serve these with the chill off; the flavor comes through much more readily when they’re not refrigerator-cold. Allow them to stand at room temperature, loosely covered, for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
4 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped
1/3 cup heavy cream
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla
Few grains of salt
2 eggs, graded “large”, preferably at room temperature
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
Place chopped chocolate in small heatproof bowl. In small saucepan, heat cream until very hot; remove from heat. Add about half of hot cream to chocolate. Allow to stand about one minute, then stir or whisk gently until smooth. Add remaining cream; stir or whisk until smooth. Set aside to cool.
Adjust rack to center of oven; preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard-size, 12-cup muffin tin (the cups are 2-1/2 inches in diameter at the top) with foil baking cups. Additionally, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil; have ready an additional 6 to 8 foil baking cups. (Alternatively, line two baking sheets with aluminum foil, and set out twelve foil baking cups on one and eight on the other, or ten on each.) Note: it is not critical to line the baking sheets with aluminum foil, but if you tend to spill batter when you portion it out, you’ll be glad you did!
In medium bowl, combine softened cream cheese (cream cheese must be very soft but not melted), sugar, vanilla, and salt. With powerful handheld electric mixer, beat at medium speed about one minute. Scrape down bowl and beater(s) with rubber spatula. Continue beating cream cheese mixture at medium speed just until it is perfectly smooth. At a low speed, add eggs, one at a time, beating after each until incorporated. Scrape bowl and beater(s) after first egg is incorporated to be sure batter continues to be smooth.
Check temperature of melted chocolate mixture. It may be warm but must not be hot. All at once, add to cream cheese batter, blending in partially at lowest speed. When chocolate is partly mixed in, stop beating. Add miniature chips; with rubber spatula or large spoon, stir or fold in gently until color of batter is even and chips are well-distributed. Don’t overmix or overbeat the batter, as you don’t want a lot of air in it. Batter will be quite thick.
Using a large tablespoon, fill foil baking cups so that each is a bit more than 3/4 full. This batter always makes 19 cheesecakes for me, but a friend who has tried the recipe tells me she ends up with between 18 and 20. Place one sheet or muffin tin of the mini cheesecakes into the preheated oven (the other sheet can wait at room temperature).
Bake 6 minutes, then turn back-to-front. If you see an obvious, large air bubble in any of the cheesecakes, prick it with a toothpick or the point of a sharp knife. Bake 5 minutes longer, then check the appearance of the cheesecakes. They will have risen slightly, and the outer edges will look dry and puffed; they may also display a small crack or two. If the pan is tapped gently (be careful doing this!), the centers of the cheesecakes will still appear uncooked and quivery. If necessary, bake a minute or so longer, but do not overbake. Remove to cooling rack (place the other baking sheet in the oven so the rest can bake now). Gently and carefully remove the individual mini cheesecakes to a cooling rack. If they were baked in a muffin tin, try carefully grasping the foil baking cup at the very top in two places and lifting the cheesecakes that way; if the cheesecakes were baked on a baking sheet, slip a broad-bladed metal spatula under them and lift off the baking sheet onto the cooling rack (if necessary, cover one hand with a pot holder and maneuver each mini cheesecake against that hand so you can slide the spatula blade under it).
Allow baked cheesecakes to stand at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes (they will probably shrink slightly while cooling), then chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Store airtight in refrigerator (place a sheet of paper towel over the top of the cheesecakes before sealing the container to absorb any condensation that might form) for up to a week; freeze for longer storage (defrost, still in wrappings, in the refrigerator). Allow cheesecake minis to stand at room temperature, loosely covered, for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
18 to 20 cheesecakes
Chocolate Find of the Month:
Martine’s Chocolates have been a favorite of mine since I first discovered them, and that’s getting to be a good number of years ago. Her combinations are not cutting-edge; you’ll find no lemongrass-mint-pineapple ganache centers here. But don’t think that means the flavor blends you’ll see are stodgy; nothing could be further from the truth. They are classic, yes---chocolate with hazelnuts, chocolate with caramel, chocolate with brandied cherries, chocolate with more chocolate. But everything is beautifully prepared, and the ingredients are absolutely fresh and of top quality. If I had to choose just one of Martine’s varieties, well, I’d be in big trouble. But do try the Shell (filled with light-textured chocolate mousse), the Butterfly (with a hazelnut praline and whipped cream center), or the Double Heart (a raspberry truffle filling). Do not expect these chocolates to have a long shelf-life! They contain no waxes or preservatives and are best enjoyed when very fresh, especially those containing fresh cream centers.
I’ve forgotten to mention that Martine’s Chocolates are also specialists in molded chocolates. You can find molded chocolates almost anywhere, but they’re not usually made out of such good chocolate. Wedding favors? Of course. But you’ll also find owls, toy soldiers, Easter bunnies, a very cute teddy bear Santa, a penguin, and even a cocker spaniel, all molded out of chocolate (Martine’s molded chocolate dogs have become very popular, and she offers a number of breeds). There is an online order form you can fax or mail in, but no online ordering per se. If you live in or near The Big Apple, head over to one of Martine’s two boutiques (6th floor of Bloomingdales at Third Avenue and 59th Street, or Martine’s Chocolates Too at 400 East 82nd Street, both in New York City---you’ll almost always be able to see chocolates being freshly made while you’re there). Otherwise, for more information, hie thee to the website, www.martineschocolates.com.
Stephanie (firstname.lastname@example.org) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.