I had started piano lessons with Miss Chen when I was in kindergarten. She’d come to our apartment and sit next to me on the piano bench in her A-line plaid wool skirt, her long ponytail wrapped in a pretty bow, teaching me how to form my hands over the keys, explaining the notes, and giving me practice homework each week. The most exciting part was that I got to fill in a “work book.” When you’re five, and don’t know the homework hell that awaits you in the years to come, anything expected of you that involves using a pencil and paper is very exciting. Or at least it was for me. All was good in kindergarten and at the end of the school year Miss Chen’s students gathered in her apartment to play what they’d learned for their parents. I don’t remember being nervous and I don’t think there were more than four other kids and their families sitting in her living room. Summer vacation came shortly after and I was on to the next fun chapter in a happy child’s life.
With the arrival of fall came the news that Miss Chen had returned to China and her cousin would be taking over her classes. My mother met with the cousin and I was told my lessons would be starting up again. From the first time my new teacher, whose name I have blocked to protect my soul, entered our house I was not happy. This lady was very serious and didn’t smile very much. She had a firm voice and high expectations. And ugly glasses. My practice homework was twice as much as the year before and the workbook didn’t have colorful cartoons next to the sheet music—it was black and white and no-nonsense, just like her. The between lesson practices that I used to do happily sitting next to my music reading father on the piano bench, became torture. The pieces were challenging and as I kept screwing up his patience began to wane, quickly. The piano thing had become fraught with pressure. And then came the news that the recital would not be held in anyone’s apartment. Rather, I’d be performing with the many other students in a church.
As we approached Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian I felt a pit in my stomach which only grew when we entered the church. It was huge! Every seat was filled. My heart was beating so quickly while various kids played (perfectly) before it was my turn to walk down the aisle where the grand piano stood in front of the pulpit. I curtsied as Cousin of Miss Chen had instructed, and sat down to play the first of my two pieces. All was fine. The audience applauded and then I brought my hands back to the keyboard to start on my second piece. And just like when Cindy Brady was a contestant on “Question the Kids,” I froze. Or maybe I had a stroke. I had absolutely no idea what the piece was that I was supposed to be playing. I stared straight ahead, unsure of what to do when Cousin of Miss Chen yelled from the upper deck, “A! A! Press A!” I pressed “A.” Nothing. No memory was triggered, no moment of redemption. Just silence. Well, not really silence. There were titters and muffled giggles from the audience and the sound of my heart thumping out of my chest. I curtsied again, walked back to my seat as quickly as possible, avoided my parents’ sympathetic gazes and stared straight ahead until the whole recital was over. I didn’t break down until we got in the cab to go home (you know it must have been a harrowing occasion if Dad flagged down a taxi for the short trip back to our apartment) when the tears flowed and my family did everything they could to comfort me. I closed my piano books forever in the first grade.Based on this horrific experience the word “recital” still gives me the shakes. So when my sister announced the date for Niece One’s first ever ballet recital my quick to trigger projection kicked in immediately. I pummeled her with questions: where was the performance? How many kids were in it? Was Niece One nervous? Did she have the right costume? Where will we go for lunch? (That one was just for me—the nieces are on the Starch and Cheese Diet which is found on every menu.)
My sister did everything to reassure me, promising me that her daughter seemed fine and wasn’t even really focusing on it what with the newly hatched chicks in her first grade classroom and her loose bottom tooth. I tried to believe her but couldn’t help identifying with my saucer eyed tiny cutie. I burdened my 40 pound niece with an extra 100+ lbs of aunt anxiety. Luckily, I had enough self control not to share my feelings with her because even I am not that bad. Instead I used my nervous energy to take on a project from hell in order to give her a treat worthy of the recital occasion. I bought chocolate lollipop molds in the form of ballet slippers (cute, right?) and was determined to properly temper good chocolate in order to make them look as professional as the pops I used to buy at Li-Lac before my one-woman boycott.
What. A. Mess. I tried two different techniques (which you can read below if you care). The first resulted in uniformly dull chocolate slippers. The second achieved the desired sheen and snap but were striated with crystallized cocoa butter.
I never claimed to be a scientist (which frankly I think you need to be to temper at home easily and properly), I just like things to taste good. That they did, thank God. Really, how bad could melted and cooled Callebaut chocolate be, even if it’s dull or stripey?
None of this mattered at all to the little ballerina whose performance was a triumph. She remembered every step, glided across the stage like the graceful sprite that she is, and beamed with almost as much pride as I did. I have to remember she is her own person and not an extension of her nutty aunt. But lord help me—she just announced she wants to take piano lessons.
Losing My Temper Tempering
The instructions that left my slippers dull:
If you are using high-quality chocolate that is already tempered, you might be able to use a shortcut and avoid going through the whole tempering process. By carefully melting the chocolate at low temperatures, it is possible to retain the temper. First, ensure that your chocolate is indeed tempered: carefully examine the surface, making sure that it is glossy, smooth, and without streaks or blemishes. Next, break the chocolate, making sure that it has a crisp “snap” when broken, and that the texture of the inside of the chocolate is uniform. If all of these conditions are met, you can attempt to melt the chocolate while keeping the temper.
To use this method, chop 1 pound of tempered, semisweet chocolate in coarse chunks. Microwave it at 50% power for 3 minutes, stopping every 30-45 seconds to stir the chocolate with a rubber spatula. Remove the chocolate when 2/3 of it has melted, and stir the chocolate until the remaining chunks are fully melted. If the chunks do not melt, warm the chocolate again very briefly.
Check the temperature with a chocolate or instant-read thermometer. If it is less than 90 degrees (88 degrees for milk or white chocolate), it is still in temper and ready to be used. Remember to do a spot test to make sure: spread a spoonful thinly over an area of waxed paper and allow it to cool. If it is tempered, the chocolate will harden within 5 minutes and look shiny and smooth. If it is dull or streaky, it has lost its temper, and you should temper the chocolate again.
The instructions that left my slippers shiny but striated:
From David Leibovitz
1) The first step is melting the chocolate in a clean, dry bowl set over simmering water, to about 115° F.
2) The second step it to let it cool to the low 80°s F. I drop a good-sized chunk of solid (and tempered) chocolate in, which provides insurance by ‘seeding’ the melted chocolate with good beta crystals. While cooling, stir frequently. Motion equals good crystallization, aka, tempering.
3) The last step is the most important.
It’s bringing the chocolate up to the perfect temperature, where it’s chock-full of those great beta crystals. This occurs in most dark chocolates between 88° and 91° F. (Check with manufacturer if unsure about your particular chocolate.)
4) Remove what’s left of the chunk of ‘seed’ chocolate, and your chocolate is dip-worthy: you can dip all the chocolates you want and all will be perfectly tempered. Don’t let it get above 91° F or you’ll have to begin the process all over again. If it drops below the temperatures, rewarm it gently to bring it back up.
Either way, if you have successfully tempered your chocolate, or you don't mind dull or striated chocolate pops, pour the melted chocolate in your lollipop mold, place a lollipop stick into the slot in the mold and leave the pops to set. When they are completely hard you will be able to easily pop them out.