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They are ubiquitous; every chocolate boutique and supermarket offers at least several varieties. They may be spherical or square, large or small. They are flavored with liqueurs, fruits, nuts, or spices, sometimes in combination. And, year in and year out, they are one of the two most popular desserts I make (the other is cheesecake). They are chocolate truffles, and there are as many ways of making them as there are people doing it. What are they, how are they made, and why have they found such great favor?
Classic chocolate truffles are made from a ganache base. If you don’t know, a traditional ganache is a mixture of chocolate (which can be dark, milk, or white) and heavy cream. Butter and/or egg yolks may be added to this base, and it can be flavored with anything from cayenne to Champagne. Once the truffle base is shaped, which can be done with the hands, a knife, or a pastry bag, depending upon the type of truffle, the exterior coating can be as simple as cocoa powder (usually unsweetened); a more elaborate truffle will be dipped in chocolate, then finished with a decoration or a roll in finely chopped nuts, chocolate sprinkles, shaved chocolate, etc. Most truffles have a dense, thick ganache base, but occasionally you’ll run across those that have a lighter, almost airy consistency. Those are made from a ganache base as well, but the base has been whipped. While some boutiques sell chocolate truffles that seem almost as pricey as the fungi that bear the same name, the two are otherwise unrelated. The first chocolate truffles, probably irregular in shape and coated with cocoa powder, no doubt reminded their creator(s) of the lumpy black fungi covered in soil, and thus they were christened after them. Incidentally, there isn’t a lot of information about chocolate truffle history. The first truffles were probably made around 1918 to 1920, so as confections go, they’re relatively recent. But there seems to be no record of the identity of the inventor(s), so presumably that information has been lost with time.
There is a mystique surrounding truffles, and there is a great misconception that they are difficult to make. While I wouldn’t suggest that inexperienced cooks try creating more complicated truffles right away, basic truffles are a simple confection, and I’ve been making them in my apartment kitchen for years now. There are a few key points to bear in mind (you must use best-quality chocolate, for instance), and truffles do take time (the ganache base must chill for several hours, and it will take time to roll each truffle by hand). But truffles are easy to vary according to your tastes, they keep well, and they make a charming and much-appreciated gift.
I’ve started to see shelf-stable truffles on store shelves, a disturbing trend. You know the type; they’re in a fancy box, they have no “best by” or “consume by” date (or such a date that’s a year distant), and they contain ingredients like palm oil and corn syrup. Do your taste buds and my sensibilities a favor by leaving them just where they belong---on the shelf. Such products are not worth the money or calories. Real chocolate truffles are perishable, and they need to be kept cool, if not refrigerated. And be wary of behemoth truffles. Large size is never a guarantee of good quality. While I’ve had a few very good large truffles, sometimes it’s the case that cheaply-made truffles are oversized so their price can be jacked up.
How do I know that chocolate truffles are so popular? Aside from my own experience, it’s an easy matter to judge. Get thee to a good search engine, and type in “chocolate truffles mail order” (without the quotation marks). You’ll get back an extensive list of truffle makers, many of whom use ingredients and flavor combinations that are either innovative or bizarre, depending upon your point of view. Why are truffles so popular? No doubt it’s a combination of reasons. Given that there are so many truffle flavors, you’ll certainly be able to come up with one or more you like. Like their fungi namesakes, truffles are viewed as a great indulgence; name me anything seen as indulgent that isn’t wildly popular. Because most truffles are relatively small in size, they are not seen as being too damaging to the diet, an important consideration in a country where people often feel guilty about what they eat. Truffles are usually pretty. They’re decorated or packaged nicely (or both). And many truffles genuinely taste good. Chocolate, heavy cream, and some sort of flavor you enjoy that complements both, be it citrus or caramel; what could be bad?
If you want to try making truffles yourself, there’s a recipe below to start you out. Other recipes are plentiful, both online and in cookbooks. Homemade or store-bought, truffles are a treat for all seasons---and all reasons.
White Chocolate-Lemon Truffles
Not all truffles are made from the deepest, darkest bittersweet chocolate! Here is a white chocolate truffle with a strong lemon presence (it will probably be more appreciated by adults than children). Please use the best white chocolate you can find to make these (cocoa butter should be one of the first ingredients listed), and chop it very finely to make melting quicker and easier.
I usually roll these truffles in pecans, but you can use walnuts or almonds, similarly finely chopped, toasted, and cooled. I chop the nuts for the coating by hand, as the food processor invariably produces ground nuts, even when I’m very careful. (Ground nuts are great for some recipes, but they provide no textural contrast here.) You could also use white chocolate sprinkles to coat these. I like to place them in 1-inch candy cups. Store the truffles in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to a week, or freeze for longer storage. Think about some of these on a nice platter, interspersed with some good-looking strawberries, for a bridal shower.
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp. heavy cream
Grated zest of 1 lemon (no white pith, please)
9 ounces best-quality white chocolate, very finely chopped
Few grains salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into thin slices
2 tsp. freshly-squeezed, strained lemon juice
About 1-1/3 cups very finely chopped pecans
Make the truffle base first, as it must be well-chilled before using. In small, heavy, nonaluminum saucepan, combine heavy cream and lemon zest. Over low heat, heat until cream comes to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Cover tightly; allow to stand 20 minutes at room temperature.
Shortly before cream standing period is up, combine white chocolate, salt, and butter pats in medium heatproof bowl. When cream has stood 20 minutes, remove cover. Reheat cream mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it reaches a simmer again. Remove from heat. Strain through fine-meshed strainer into white chocolate mixture. Press down on the lemon zest left in the strainer to extract all the liquid from it.
Place white chocolate mixture over warm water on low heat (water should not touch bottom of bowl). Stir frequently just until almost melted; remove from heat and hot water. Stir until melted and smooth. (Note: White chocolate, even of excellent quality, can be stubborn about melting. If there are small lumps of white chocolate in your truffle base, transfer the truffle base to a food processor fitted with a steel blade; process at high speed just until smooth.) Stir in lemon juice, 1 teaspoon at a time.
Transfer truffle base to small bowl. Chill at least 4 hours (overnight is fine, too), covering tightly when cold. While base chills, prepare coating.
For Coating: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place finely chopped pecans in single layer in shallow, foil-lined pan. Toast in preheated oven for 8 to 11 minutes, stirring often, until very fragrant and a light golden color. Watch carefully! Nuts can burn quickly. Cool completely before using.
To make truffles: If desired, have ready 1 inch candy cups for finished truffles. Using a small cookie scoop or a teaspoon (not a measuring teaspoon), form balls of about 1 inch diameter from the cold truffle base. Drop into the cooled pecans (or scrape off from the one teaspoon with another). Roll in pecans until well-coated, then place in optional candy cups or storage container. Continue until all base is used.
Store truffles airtight in refrigerator for up to one week; freeze for longer storage. To serve, remove from refrigerator 15 to 20 minutes prior to serving time. Let stand at room temperature, covered, until serving time.
About 36 truffles, 1 inch in diameter
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San Francisco is a city justly famed for her great food establishments. You’re wandering Columbus Avenue in North Beach when you suddenly spy a tiny boutique that immediately causes a large smile to break out on your face. It’s XOX Truffles, part drink bar and part truffle-lover’s nirvana. Almost reverently, you step inside, trying not to be overwhelmed by the variety you know you’ll find. Selecting a beverage here is the easy part, but choosing from all these truffles will certainly be the most delightful puzzle you’ll face all day. Crème de Menthe? Cognac? French Roast? There are liqueured as well as non-liqueured choices aplenty. XOX Truffles even offers three types of vegan soy truffles that are eminently edible (and I know, because I finally bit the bullet and tried the a L’Orange flavor).
These truffles are petite, irregular in shape, and nearly irresistible, so be warned. You think you’ll be able to stop with one or two, but save yourself the trouble and get a box to go. Last year, XOX Truffles opened a second boutique in up-and-coming Oakland, also in northern California. If you don’t live near either location, have no fear; this company does ship their products, although you must allow sufficient time for them to be made (as all the truffles are made by hand here) as well as shipped. There is online ordering, but you can also contact the company directly if you want a special order. I like the clever and fun packaging, too. If you can’t be bothered to make truffles at home, recognize that there are small businesses like XOX Truffles who do this, and do it very well indeed! Check out the website at www.xoxtruffles.com.
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) 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.