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F&W’s Masters Series: Chocolate Lessons from Jean-François Bonnet

“Chocolate is a combination of pleasures between the texture and the flavor,” says Tumbador Chocolate’s Jean-François Bonnet, whose Brooklyn factory creates bespoke chocolates and bars for chefs like Fatty Crab’s Zak Pelaccio. In this ultimate guide to chocolate, Bonnet explains how it’s made, what separates a good bar from a great one and why milk chocolate could be so much better.

Jean-François Bonnet of New York’s Tumbador Chocolate trained as a chef in France before landing in the States as a pastry chef, but all his life, chocolate was his favorite: “In many desserts chocolate is the cement,” he says. “You can play with its textures. It works with so many foods, it lets you bring so many flavors onto one plate.” As an executive pastry chef for Daniel Boulud’s flagship Daniel, Bonnet made 20,000 chocolates a month. “Once a month, From 7 a.m. ’til 2 a.m. the next day, we would run this tiny enrobing machine. We had to cover the walls with plastic, because the room was so tiny, chocolate could splash all over the place and add another two and a half hours of cleaning.” He then teamed up with business partner Michael Altman, who had the idea to create private-label confections. Now they operate a 20,000-square-foot Brooklyn facility capable of producing 20,000 candies in a few hours. The house brand, Tumbador, garners fans not only for exquisite candies but also for haute takes on American classics like his Lil’ Devils, a rich chocolate version of Ring Dings. Here, Bonnet explains the difference between Old and New World bonbons and why chocolate lovers should save the red wine for dinner.

Where does the name Tumbador come from?

It comes from the Spanish word tumbar, to cut down. In plantation slang, the tumbadors are the pod pickers, the first line of defense. If the pods aren’t ready, you’re not going to have good chocolate. As we built the company it came to reflect that philosophy, that everyone is deeply involved in quality, no matter their station. We started working with a community-based program called Strive, where we hired people who had been incarcerated and gave them a second chance. And now they are very successful. One of them is actually our best sales representative.

How is chocolate made?

I don’t actually make chocolate at Tumbador, I make chocolate confections. But from what I understand, chocolate is made from cacao beans: First the beans are harvested and removed from the cacao pods. Then they are fermented, dried, washed, roasted and shelled to extract the cacao nibs. The nibs are ground into a paste. At that point you can go one of two ways: either you can conch it and get chocolate, or you can expel all the cocoa butter and make cocoa powder.

The conch is a machine that grinds everything really fast. During conching, the flavor in the chocolate is created by the friction and the heat, the molecular exchanges between the cocoa powder, butter and vanilla.

Most chocolate bars give a percentage, like 72 percent. What do the percentages mean?

They refer to the total amount of cocoa products in that bar, both the cocoa powder and butter. So let’s take the example of the 72 percent chocolate we use for our blend. It has 27 percent sugar; 1 percent soy lecithin and vanilla; and 72 percent cocoa product, including 42 percent cocoa butter and about 30 percent cocoa powder. Other 72 percent chocolates might contain only about 10 percent cocoa butter, 62 percent cocoa powder.

Even with milk chocolate, we always add about 10 percent dark chocolate. One day we sent samples to a client that was geared towards kids, and they didn’t buy it because the children thought the milk chocolate wasn’t sweet enough. That was a little victory. That’s what I do with my daughter—of course she’s a kid, so she likes milk chocolate a lot. But when I bring her milk chocolate, it’s always mixed with dark—and she eats it! It’s always a bit of a victory when you get someone to eat more dark.

What do you have against milk chocolate?

It’s not against milk chocolate, it’s against sugar. A lot of times, often for cost reasons, milk chocolate tastes more like sugar than butter or chocolate. If I’m not mistaken, the average is more like 4 to 6 percent cocoa content. I like a milk chocolate that’s going to be creamy from its high milk content, but I also like a slight bitterness. I don’t want to be left with sugar in my mouth, I want to be left with chocolate. So it’s not that I don’t like milk chocolate. It’s just that I like good milk chocolate.

How do you make a great chocolate bar?

First we select the chocolate. We work almost exclusively with E. Guittard in California. A lot of chocolates are very dark, almost black, and visually not as appealing. Guittard chocolate is browner, almost reddish. We blend two of the chocolates, one for the color, the level of acidity, and the high cocoa butter content for that beautiful texture in the mouth, then another for darkness and nuttiness.

We melt the chocolate then pour it into machines that are called temperers, which maintain the right fluctuations in temperature while constantly mixing the liquid chocolate so it will have the right texture once it sets: the right snap, shine, the whole thing that goes with good chocolate.

Then ingredients are added, each one carefully selected. Take our Holy Mole bar for example. It has all the ingredients of the Mexican mole sauce—chocolate, almonds, sesame, sea salt, and a blend of five chiles. We select specific types of chiles, we buy them whole and grind them ourselves. The almonds are roasted and coated with a little sugar, and the sesame is slowly roasted as well. My staff is very careful as they add them, because just a little mistake in the weighing or the mixing, and the bar is completely off.

What distinguishes a great chocolate bar from a mediocre one?

Texture. Chocolate is a combination of pleasures between the texture and the flavor. But if it doesn’t feel good in the mouth, you’re not enjoying it. It has to be very smooth. That smoothness partly comes with the conching—the particle mass has to be ground fine enough so that the chocolate feels fluid in your mouth. The amount of cocoa butter is also key, as is the total absence of foreign oils. Some people put different oils, and you can taste them. Tempering is also very important: If it’s not tempered correctly, it can taste chalky. Chocolate is said to be the perfect food for the human mouth. The melting point of cocoa butter is 34.5 degrees Celsius, and your mouth is at 37.2 degrees Celsius. So it’s the perfect temperature, because your mouth is just hot enough to melt the chocolate at a good pace. Chocolate isn’t something you keep in your mouth and let melt. You do both: You melt and chew.

Appearance. A badly tempered or badly stored bar can also have a fat bloom or sugar bloom. Humidity can draw out sugar, and heat can draw out fat.

Balance. Flavor is subjective, but balance is important. We don’t want it to be overly smoky, or overly sweet, or overly bitter, or too nutty or acidic; we want it to be right in between.

How do you make bonbons?

Bonbons are a ganache, an emulsion of chocolate, cream and butter, enrobed in chocolate. For our bonbons we use all fresh ingredients, no preservatives. We use fresh cream, butter, fruits, sometimes nut butters, honey, or infusions of spices and coffee. The coffee can be cold-infused or hot-infused; we use matcha green tea, we use a bunch of different things. Then the base may just be dark chocolate or a mix of dark and milk, or a mix of milk and white, or just white. For a lot of our fruit-flavored ones we use only white.

We make the ganache in what we consider small batches, though it’s a big batch for a home cook—about 30 to 40 kilos, or 65 to 90 pounds. We boil the cream and the sugar on the stove, then pour it on the unmelted chocolate in a huge bowl. We let it sit for a few minutes, then blend it for about 5 minutes to create the emulsion. Then let it cool down to about 28 to 32 degrees Celsius.
To mold the ganache, we cast it in custom-made frames about ½ inch thick, 2 feet long, and 1 foot wide. Depending on whether the ganache base is dark chocolate, milk or white, it has to rest anywhere between 12 and 36 hours. Then we cover the dried side with a thin layer of chocolate and flip it. Using a wire cutter called a guitar, which is basically a very large egg cutter—a humongous dinosaur egg cutter if you will—we cut the slabs into pieces that are about the size of a one-inch square. We separate and dry them for another 12 hours before enrobing. You want your filling to be—I hate to say “dry” because it brings the wrong idea, but it has to create a little crust on the outside; you don’t want any moisture or else the outer chocolate layer won’t stick. Chocolate will only stick to something dry. Worse, if it’s moist, then mold can form.

Then we enrobe the bonbons, or cover them in a thin outer layer of chocolate, by running them through an enrobing machine: We send them on a conveyor belt under a sheet of melted chocolate. The chocolate in the outside coating doesn’t matter much, because it’s only a small percentage of the bon bon itself. It’s really more in the filling, the ganache, the mix of cream or fruit juice or nut butter—that’s where the chocolate comes into play.

What are the main types of bonbons?

Old World. For the French, Belgian and Swiss style of bonbons, a lot of times the balance of flavors is so precise that you can barely taste the flavoring. Bonbons from the French maker La Maison du Chocolat, for instance, have a barely there flavor. There's maybe a touch of mint, maybe raspberry, but it’s always very subtle.

New World. The American style is in-your-face with different flavors. It’s a trend that’s changing for the better, but Americans also like their chocolate sweeter. Then there’s the new New World, whereby new chocolatiers are trying to achieve the balance that you get in a well-made dish in a restaurant: everything in its proper proportion. You get all these flavors—bright, sweet—but in the end you’re still left with a good flavor of chocolate. That’s what we do.

What distinguishes great bonbons from bad?

Texture. The ganache has to be smooth and creamy. If the ganache isn’t made well, it will be grainy.

Freshness. If it’s too old, the inside will shrink and won’t adhere to its shell. When you bite into it, the chocolate coating can come off and separate. We make our bonbons fresh every week, so they should always adhere.

Flavor. There should be a true balance of flavors. You don’t want it to taste too sweet or too chocolatey. If it’s a raspberry bonbon, it can’t taste only of raspberry and sugar. In whatever you do, chocolate has to be the star.

Why did you decide to make nostalgic desserts like the Lil’ Devils?

Those were my partner’s idea—he loved Ring Dings in his childhood. At first when we started researching and developing the dessert, we’d buy the real versions, but I couldn't eat them. The Ring Dings’ filling has this greyish-brown color that’s really unappealing. And the inside literally is not whipped—it looks like a sweetened chunk of Crisco. It was awful. But I did not want to be one of those French chefs who believe that what the French do is best and the rest doesn’t matter. I came to the States and embraced all these new ingredients. In France people don’t eat peanuts except for bar snacks, but I love peanut butter. Instead of shooting something down, I try to make it better. For instance, someone recently asked us to create a peppermint bar—a chocolate bar with crushed peppermint candy inside. But peppermint candy tends to stick to your teeth, it’s really sweet, and it’s often made with bad peppermint oil. So I’ve decided to mix the chocolate with roasted cocoa nibs for the crunch, and add natural peppermint oil for the flavor. That’s the route we take in everything we do: I don’t like to say that we make it better, we just make it our way.

Top 5 Chocolate Pairings

  1. Chiles: You can find wonderful flavors in Mexican chiles, Asian peppers. They’re a terrific thing to play with.
  2. Spices: Especially when the spices are infused, they can go so well.
  3. Candied or fresh grapefruit: I’m usually not a fruit-and-chocolate kid of guy, but I love how the bitterness of the two play off each other.
  4. Spirits: A brandy with bonbons is fantastic. So is a great Scotch, rum, even mezcal. We recently did a pairing of mezcals with bonbons, and the smokiness worked so well with the fruits, particularly the tropical fruits like passion fruit. I find that the spirits, because of the alcohol, they make the flavor go up your nose almost. The flavors of the chocolate are popping in your mouth. I think spirits are much better with chocolate than wine.
  5. Beer: We made a version of the Ring Ding with Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout for the Brewfest two years ago in New York. Beer is a lot of fun with chocolate. The darker the beer, the better. But we did a pairing once with a light beer, an Ithaca Apricot Wheat beer, which was also very good.

Does anything not go with chocolate?

Red wine: I don’t believe chocolate and wine go together, because of temperature problems and tannins. Red wine and chocolate both have tannins, so tannins are clashing in your mouth. Then, chocolate should be eaten above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, while wine should be drunk below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so when you have chilled wine in your mouth, you won’t be able to melt the chocolate. The opposite way doesn’t work, either: If you put a chocolate in your mouth and it starts to melt, and then you add cold wine, the fats in the chocolate get hard again, and the flavors lock up.

More Lessons from Jean-François Bonnet

Jean-François Bonnet’s Chocolate Travel Hit List
Photo © Tom Seawell / Courtesy of Recchiuti Confections.

Jean-François Bonnet’s Chocolate Travel Hit List

At Tumbador chocolate in Brooklyn, Bonnet makes bespoke bars and bonbons with ingredients from all over the world. Here, he shares his top cities for chocolate lovers. READ MORE »

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