Modern Boxed Chocolates and the Lost Art of Fork-Dipping.
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
When you first open a box of assorted chocolates or bonbons, you will see a variety of designs, colours and shapes…do you ever wonder how they were made?
I was a curious kid and always pondered these little mysteries. Remember the commercials for the “Cadbury Secret”? How do they get the soft creamy caramel into the Caramilk bar?
I have been a professional Chocolatier for over 15 years, and I do know the Cadbury secret…but I am not going to spoil the fun and divulge it here!
Now, back to our freshly opened box of chocolates…chances are you will likely see one or more of the three methods of making fine chocolates; Machine Enrobed, Molded or Fork-Dipped.
Let’s start with the first, Machine Enrobed. Various types of firm centers can be used for this type of chocolate such as caramel, flavoured fondants, creams or slabbed ganache. Some design variety can be achieved by cutting the centers into various shapes such as squares, rounds, and triangles. The Enrobing Machine consists of a moving conveyor belt that carries the centers through a “curtain” of flowing chocolate as it simultaneously “bottoms” it with a coating of chocolate. The coated chocolates then move through a stream of blasted air to removed excess coating, and then on to another conveyor belt on the other side where the finished chocolates are moved to trays for the cooling process. As the coated chocolates come through, they can be quickly finished with a decorative swirl or added sprinkle. Or the operator will add other types of décor such as drizzled white chocolate. In very large factories, the ability to add a creative finish is very limited. In smaller shop settings, more decorating options are available to the chocolatier.
This picture shows an example of one of my fellow students using an Enrobing Machine during my Master Chocolatier class in Italy. This type of machine would typically be used in a small to medium sized chocolate shop. Large commercial chocolate factories would use similar technology but on a much grander scale.
The recipes for centers used in large commercially made chocolates are mainly sugar based or have added preservatives to give them a very long shelf life, sometimes up to a year or more. When you make thousands of chocolates a day, they need to last a long time! I find they are usually very tasteless and uninspired…just a mouthful of sugar.
As you can imagine, a LOT of chocolates can be made very quickly but there is not much room for interesting flavours, high quality ingredients or creative finishes, and the result is a collection of relatively plain chocolates. When you open commercial chocolate assortment boxes, it can look a little blah. Think Pot of Gold or Russell Stover – two examples of very large commercial chocolate makers. Lots of folks enjoy this type of boxed chocolates but consumers tastes are changing and they are looking for more creativity, locally sourced ingredients and a bit of the Chocolatier's personality. They are looking for an elevated chocolate bonbon experience.
The second type of bonbon you may find in the modern assortment box will be molded chocolates. To make this style of chocolate, the Chocolatier will use a mold plate – usually made of a rigid polycarbonate material to withstand many uses over the years. There are literally thousands of styles of molds to choose from and some Chocolatiers even have them custom made to their own specifications and designs. The mold can be left plain or hand painted, or sprayed, with coloured cocoa butter prior to casting, or filling, the mold. The colours chosen might give an indication of the flavour inside or just a design the Chocolatier has created. This technique results in each chocolate being slightly different and unique.
After casting the shell into the mold, it is then filled with a centre – perhaps a ganache, a caramel, a pate de fruit or a gianduja. The large commercial factories use machines to fill the shells and the smaller artisan shops use piping bags and fill by hand. Then a layer of chocolate is added to the mold to create the bottom of the bonbon. A lot of skill is required to get the thickness of the shell just right…not too thick, not too thin. After cooling and setting, the molds are flipped, and the finished chocolates come out. Hopefully.
(pictured above is our Honey Crisp molded chocolate bonbon made with local Nautical Nectar Honey!)
The final technique I will discuss is fork-dipping. It is the most labour intensive of the 3 methods and rarely done in the industry today for that very reason. The dipped centers would be similar to those used in the Commercial enrobing process, slabbed ganache, caramels, gianduja etc. Skill is required to get the right thickness of coating, or couverture, and keep the “foot” on the base of the chocolate to a minimum. Adding decorative finishes, sometimes while the chocolate is still liquid, can often make the process a two-person job. And while working, the Chocolatier must keep the chocolate in perfect temper, or crystallization. Chocolates are usually dipped in small batches – in our shop, about 150 at a time.
If we take a step back in time in the Chocolate industry, most of the chocolate centers for boxed chocolates were dipped by hand, and I mean literally …the un-gloved hand of the worker was immersed in the liquid chocolate to coat the centers and then they would be placed on a tray to set. Sometimes a little flourish would be added. It would take over a year for a chocolate dipper – usually women – to become proficient enough to be considered an “asset” to the chocolate company.
Later, it was determined that using a specially designed fork would be a lot more “sanitary” for dipping the chocolates, and the term “Fork-Dipt Chocolate” (as it was spelled back then) was born! In a future blog post, I will delve more into the fascinating history of the chocolate bonbon.
Adding the word “Fork-Dipt” to the chocolate box lid would show the potential customer that the chocolates were made in a sanitary way – many companies were proud of the fact that they had skilled fork-dippers in their factories. Eventually, the Enrobing Machines were introduced. Their speed could not be matched by human dippers and the art of Fork-Dipping began to fade out. This photo is an example of the Willard's Chocolate Company using the term for their boxed assortment.
Our production kitchen at Beanermunky Chocolate is located in what used to be a private home over 100 years ago. It has evolved over that time to be a Boot Shop, a Paint & Wallpaper Store, a Dollar Store, a Clothing Store and currently, our little chocolate shop. The age and layout of the building has its challenges (such as mid room pillars and an oddly shaped layout) and there is no room for a long enrobing machine, so we do everything by hand. Hand-crafted centers. Hand Tempered Belgian Chocolate. Hand painted or decorated and of course, Fork-Dipped by hand.
As a chocolatier, I like the freedom for creativity and variety that hand work gives us. That is why our collection of chocolates is so varied. Our boxed assortments include molded, nut clusters and fork-dipped bonbons with some hand piped designs, some with coloured cocoa butter and some simply dipped.
If there is a downside to making all our chocolates by hand, it is that - as hard as we try and as many hours as we put in, it is sometimes not quite enough to meet demand. Especially during the busy “chocolate holidays” of Christmas, Valentines and Easter. A great problem to have but we never like to disappoint a customer.
We are often asked about shelf life and freshness of the boxed chocolates. Because we only work in small batches, there is never a large back stock and most batches sell out within 2-3 weeks. We recommend consuming them within 6 weeks of purchase for their maximum taste and freshness. An easy task!
So the next time you open a box of assorted chocolates – made by anyone – take note of the design, the colours, the shapes, the aroma, the flavour and the variety in your assortment….and maybe take a moment to ponder, like I did in my childhood, how they were made.
Lori Eisenberger, Owner/Chocolatier