There is a place down on west 22nd street that will cause you to do things you might later regret. It’s called the New York Cake & Baking Distributer, and those who go there should enter only at their own risk. Let me tell you my story. Not so long ago, I made a trip down to that part of town, to buy some stationery (all the good stationery stores are also in the west 20s). Somehow, the siren call of baking supplies was strong that day and I found myself wandering the aisles of New York Cake, admiring the rainbow display of food coloring, the giant wall of cookie cutter shapes, and the endless varieties of chocolate molds. There were hearts galore. How hard would it be to make chocolates for Valentines day?, I was forced to wonder. As I made my way toward the back of the store, I noticed a group had gathered around a pair of size 8, three-inch pumps and what appeared to be a Chanel handbag, rendered in chocolate down to the tiniest detail. This was a class devoted to the making of accessories out of chocolate! Next to that, making simple chocolate hearts suddenly seemed easy, and I walked out of the store with some silicone molds and shiny foil wrappers, thinking about how excited my daughters would be about this year’s project.
For the past two years, we have made matchbook valentines filled with M&M’s, a project I love because I just can’t resist tiny boxes. But I had run out of matchboxes and it seemed sort of lame to do the same thing three years in a row. I did, however, have over 100 square favor boxes, purchased for some project that never quite came to fruition, so I thought it made perfect sense to have the girls decorate the boxes and then fill them with the handmade chocolates. Of course it did! Based on the size of the boxes, each needed about three chocolates in order for us not to look like we were skimping. Doing the math (2 kids X 26 classmates each) we needed 52 boxes and over 150 chocolates. How hard could that be? After all, we weren’t actually making homemade chocolate, which looks like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, we were just tempering the chocolate and pouring it into the molds. I had two molds and could make 30 hearts at a time – seemed doable.
I was feeing particularly emboldened because, unlike other years, I had planned ahead. My little sojourn to the baking store was way back in January! There was still plenty of time. I figured if we started on the chocolate in early February, we would have them done in one weekend and could decorate the boxes the week before Valentines day. The first Saturday in February I got out all our supplies and we set to work. I sprang for good chocolate – Guittard - because what first-grader doesn’t appreciate a fine quality chocolate? We melted down the wafers in a double boiler trying to get the temperature just right so our chocolates would be shiny instead of dull. Once the chocolate was liquid, my kids were excited to spoon them into the molds. Now, I admit that working with hot melted chocolate and small children is sort of like asking for trouble, although that honestly didn’t occur to me beforehand. Unless you really know what you are doing, there is no way to do this project without causing a big, sticky, chocolaty mess. We had chocolate everywhere! On the table, on the floor, on my elbows and forearms, too – it was like a Karen Finley installation, right in our own apartment. My chocolate-goateed children were leaving sticky brown prints everywhere and I was doing my best not to be uptight about it. After all, this whole thing was my idea. Not theirs.
The directions said that once the chocolate was in the molds, you just had to put them in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before popping them out. I don’t know what kind of fridge they were talking about because after 20 minutes ours were still soft and when we tried to remove them from the molds they became a squishy mess, adding to our already chocolate covered decor and children. For the hearts to properly harden (no pun intended) I ended up having to put them into the freezer for several hours, which made the chocolate production line a bit slow going. Once they were ready, it was a bit of a challenge to get them out of the molds and wrapped without them melting again, but we solved this problem by chilling the plate we set them on in the freezer, too, feeling smug about our ingenuity. The cold chocolates popped out of their molds with no trouble – success! They were beautiful and delicious – and they needed to be wrapped quickly. This is where things started to really fall apart. Wrapping chocolates involves a steeper learning curve than I had anticipated and is not so easy for little fingers. The foil was delicate, tore easily, making it hard to fold around the edges and giving the finished product a bit of a tampered with look. The kind of chocolate that, if found among your child’s Halloween candy, you might pull aside to look for razor blades inside. (N.B – if you are reading this as a parent of one of my children’s classmates, don’t be alarmed. Despite their wadded up look, these fancy chocolates were made in the most sanitary of conditions. I promise!)
After a few attempts, it became clear that the chocolate wrapping would be my area. Besides, the kids still had plenty of boxes to make – about 26 each, to be exact. Like any non-homework activity, they were really excited to get started and put their full efforts into the first 3-5 boxes. Then they took a break. Projects like these should really be undertaken only by those who home-school or have class sizes in the single digits, because no matter how lovely and creative making your own hand-decorated, chocolate boxes sounds, making over fifty of them is extremely tedious. Every so often they would gather steam again, but it was slow going and our kitchen took on a bit of a sweatshop feel. I was working on one end of the table with the chocolate and foil while they chipped away on their box decoration at the other, sometimes willingly – oftentimes not, like some kind of forced march through the wreckage of craft-land. The heart design scheme got a little repetitive for my 1st-grader, so she decided to branch out into other holidays, drawing Christmas trees on some of her boxes. On at least one, she depicted the sinking of the Titanic – which might have been an accurate depiction of how she was feeling about this project. Since both my children had visited the Tenement Museum on field trips this year, it was the perfect opportunity to imagine ourselves as 19th-century immigrants forced to survive on a cottage industry of making fancy chocolates and artisanal boxes. That’s how we like to party.
Once I had finished several dozen chocolate hearts, my mania really took hold and I decided to expand my repertoire to include Star Wars characters. Our friend had loaned us his molds of R2D2 and Han Solo trapped in Carbonite, and I couldn’t resist – I was too far in and I couldn’t turn back.
The R2D2s were tough to get out of the molds, each time one of their little feet would break off. And they were near impossible to wrap without ending up looking like a wadded up gum wrappers. When I finally burned the white chocolate, I decided to give up on the hobbled droids. But the Han Solos were a relative success and, being rectangular, much easier to wrap.
In the end, we made over 150 poorly wrapped chocolates and the Valentine Sweatshop took over most of early February, ending at about 11:00 p.m. last night with my daughter – homework undone – frantically gluing hearts onto her boxes and vowing not to make valentines for boys next year. Our apartment is coated in a veneer of chocolate and tiny scraps of paper and foil that we will surely be finding several months from now. Somehow, I have no taste for chocolate.
Yesterday, I was standing in the check-out line at the grocery store and saw a bowl of foil-wrapped chocolate hearts at the counter. They were festive, shiny, on sale, even – and didn’t look like they had been wrapped by the Unabomber. Sigh. Never again. I’ve already decided on next year’s Valentine’s Day craft: Bookmarks!. Chocolate, I’m done with you.
Happy Valentines’ Day!