Tempering chocolate involves melting and heating it to about 110°, letting it cool to below 80°, and then bringing it back up and holding it around 90°. Once there, you can dip, coat, or drizzle to your heart's content - as long as the temperature stays around that magical 90°. If it drops below, you need to start all over again.
Why bother? Tempered chocolate coats things evenly, has a glossy look once it hardens, and snaps cleanly in the mouth. It also melts smoothly while you're eating it. Untempered chocolate tastes just fine, but it looks dull, often has gray streaks from the re-crystallized chocolate, and has a grainy texture.
Mark Bittman shows us how we can do temper chocolate on our stove top with just a pan, a thermometer, and a pile of chocolate. He melts just a portion of the chocolate to 110°, stirs in the reserved chocolate to lower the temperature (called "seeding"), and then heats the whole batch up to the required tempering temperature. He says the temperature will hold for several minutes, which is more than enough time to dip everything dippable in your house.
We still think tempering chocolate is kind of a hassle, though it is definitely good to know you don't need any fancy baking or candy-making equipment to do it at home.
P.S. Watch the video of Bittman demonstrating the tempering process - the last few minutes of him showing a batch of dipped goodies where the tempering went wrong is priceless.
Do you ever make anything that requires tempered chocolate? How do you handle that tempering step?
• Get the Article: Chocolate Gets Hot But Holds Its Temper by Mark Bittman