Chocolate is not just for eating. Our chefs speak of it with reverence as a precious resource, a useful garnish, and above all else an invaluable building material. But mastering chocolate is not as simple as melting it down, filling a mold, and waiting for it to set; to really bend the medium to your artistic will and make it hold up as a gravity-defying sculpture you have to go through the tedious process of tempering.
Tempering essentially consists of three stages: melting the solid chocolate, cooling it, and then re-heating it slightly. The exact temperature curve (e.g. 45-50º C -> 26º -> 31-32º for dark) varies slightly between different types of chocolate, but afterward it will have the benefits of: setting quickly, looking shiny, and breaking cleanly. But as you might imagine, constantly monitoring the temperature of the chocolate and working with it quickly enough once it's in the correct range is rather a pain, not to mention that even a couple degrees off can mean the difference between receiving a compliment and criticism at the end of practical.
This morning we had our exam to finish up the chocolate unit of the course, during which we had 2.5 hours to complete and decorate a box. Can't say I was overjoyed by my results, but at least it's over and the box didn't break. (An alumnus once told me that if it did, "You're fucked.") All the little smudges and fingerprints are telling signs of my nervousness, which was exacerbated by chef's foul mood. Seriously, if he weren't a man I would have sworn he was PMSing.