Back when I was about 12 or so, my dad's job occasionally required him to go to Boston for meetings. Once in awhile, I was allowed to go with him, and can still remember the feeling of weightlessness taking the express elevator to the top of the Prudential Building, and the wonder of Faneuil Hall marketplace. It was the first place I ate New-York style pizza, frozen yogurt with strawberries, and bratwurst (on a stick!).
It was also where I bought the biggest and most beautiful balloon I've ever seen.
It was purple, deep purple, and must have been nearly 2 feet tall. I think the ribbon tied to it was purple too, but nothing could compare to how big and perfect this balloon was. I know I should wax poetic about how the light played off it or such, but I was 12. All I remember was big and purple.
We lived about an hour outside the city, but the balloon made it back home unharmed. I'd been holding it so carefully for so long that as soon as I got up the stairs to the living room, I let go, so it could float free in the house. Of course, at 12 years old you don't know anything about textured ceilings; the fact that there might be sharp points up there never entered my mind. Up went the balloon, it bounced once, and then... well, you know what happened then. Lesson learned.
Ever since I've had a soft spot for balloons, and you can always find a bag or two stashed away in our house. Not only do they make great toys and decorations, and bring a smile to everyone's face; they can become tools to help you make the fastest, most impressive chocolate dessert cups this side of anywhere.
Let's begin with the chocolate. You'll want to use chocolate that's tempered for its shine and snap. For chocolate to be in temper, it means the crystals in the chocolate are aligned through a process of heating and cooling to specific temperatures. The good news is that if you have chocolate that's already tempered, and you don't overheat it, it will stay in temper, and your chocolates will retain the shine and snap of the original chocolate.
For chocolate cups, I use the Merckens break apart bars and the easiest method of tempering I know of.
Begin by placing 3/4 of the chocolate you're using in a double boiler, or stainless steel bowl.
Keep out the last 1/4 of the chocolate. You'll need it later.
To make your own double boiler, place about 1” of water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Be VERY careful not to get any water in your chocolate. Water will make the chocolate seize into a rock-hard mass that won't melt.
Place the bowl of chocolate in the water pan, and heat the whole thing (or your double boiler) over very low heat. It's best to melt the chocolate slowly; you'll have better control over the temperature.
Your secret weapon... dime-store balloons. These are from a party pack, and cost about $1 for 100. The small round ones are my favorite for chocolate cups. The water balloon kind work very well, too.
Blow up several balloons, more than you think you'll need. There'll be breakage, so it's best to plan for it. To check the size, blow up some to the size you want, and then test the other balloons next to those samples for size, before tying them off. This is a great task for older kids.
Keeping an eye on the melting chocolate is key to not overheating it, and losing temper (yours and the chocolate's!).
When the chocolate is nearly all melted, with very small bits of unmelted chocolate, take it off the heat, and add the reserved chocolate. Stir until nearly all the lumps are gone. A few small lumps are fine, and better than overheating.
Pour the chocolate into a small, deep bowl. Now, simply hold the balloon by the “tail” and dunk it into the chocolate, about halfway up the balloon. Lift the balloon, and let some of the excess chocolate drain off. Place on a parchment-lined sheet.
Here you can have the family get involved. Shannon and her friend Christina were home after Odyssey of the Mind practice, so they went to work. It's fun to watch them bake, and even more fun to listen. Baking together is a great time for Mom to catch up on who's doing what, when, and where.
Once you've mastered the basic “dunk,” you can get fancy making tulip cups. Instead of dunking straight up and down, dunk and tilt the balloon. First left, then right, then front, then back.
Soon you'll have lots of little cups beginning to harden. Remember what I said about making extras? Check out the blue balloon on the lower left. Luckily it didn't spray much chocolate when it popped, but it did wake us up!
Once all the balloons are done, you can place them in the fridge to harden up. Here in Vermont, we have a free, extra-large deep freezer available during the winter.
Once the shells are hardened (time will depend on your fridge/freezer), it's time to release the balloon. DON'T cut or puncture the balloons in the middle. This will cause them to burst too quickly, and the cups will shatter.
DO cut the balloons on the squishy stems. The air will release much more slowly.
You can snip all the balloons at once, and they'll slowly deflate, pulling away from the sides of the chocolate shells as they go. Give a little poke to any that need help.
When the balloons are nearly flat, just pull them out of the shells. Be careful not to overhandle the cups, or you may leave smudges on them.
Wow! How impressive is that? A whole tray of chocolate cups in several different sizes, for just a few minutes' work. Now, what shall we fill them with? How about pastry cream?
Bonus today: two secret “recipes.” First PJ's secret for easy pastry cream: instant vanilla pudding made with heavy cream and extra vanilla extract (about a teaspoon, or to taste). Just mix according to package directions.
I like to use pastry cream mix. I use half milk, and half fat-free half and half. (The big secret here is that I use this mix in my ice cream base for extra flavor and creaminess. YUM!)
Shells are ready, pastry cream is ready. Let's get filling.
What a tempting tasty tray of goodies! We filled some with plain whipped cream, some with pastry cream. The dark chocolate is Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. We topped nearly all of them with pure chocolate sprinkles or Hershey's syrup. That might be overkill for some folks, but this was our Big Chocolate Blowout!
So, the next time your family is spouting hot air, put it to good use, and make some chocolate balloon shells. You'll never look at balloons the same way again.