As a newbie here I thought, before piling in with my own questions, I'd pull together some of the things I've learned in my first months of chocolate making - in case this helps others who embark on the same path.
Many of these learnings came from eGullet, some from elsewhere, and I'm very grateful for all the many sources of experience and insight. Cooking technique is quite personal so of course not everyone will agree with my idiosyncratic list of course.
Most useful equipment so far
Cooking isn't really about the equipment - you can make fine chocolates with hardly any equipment - but here are the things which have helped me the most.
1. Small tempering machine. This got me started on chocolate making with a superb easy path. The ChocoVision Rev 2B (with the "holey baffle" which increases its capacity) just gets the tempering perfect every time. Yes, I could temper in the microwave or on a slab, but it's great to take away any uncertainty about the final finish, by using this great machine. Downsides: continuously noisy, doesn't have the capacity for large batches.
2. Plenty of silicon baking mats (Silpat clones). I use these not just for ganache and inverting moulds onto, but also just to keep the kitchen clean! Working at home, I create a lot of mess and found I could reduce the risk of divorce by spreading large sheets (60x40cm size) across the work surface. So much easier to clean, and I can scrape unused chocolate back into the supply for next time.
I get mine directly from China through AliExpress where they are about 1/3 of the local price. Then, for a further cost saving I ordered a couple of sheets of stainless steel at exactly the same 40x30 size, from a hobbyist place, and stuck some rubber feet underneath. The silicon mat + steel sheet can then easily be carried to the cool room. I got metal bars made up by another hobbyist place (an eGullet suggestion) which was a cheap alternative to caramel bars.
3. Scrapers. Life got better when I stopped trying to scrape moulds with a regular palette knife. I found we had two Japanese okomoniyaki spatulas from Japanese cooking which were perfect!
4. Polycarbonate moulds. Again in order to afford a bunch of these, I get them from China via AliExpress where they are £5-£7 each (including shipping) rather than £18 (+£10 shipping) locally. If I were starting again I'd buy little squares and half-spheres first, because these are easy to decorate with transfer sheets and cocoa butter respectively; plus a bar mould for quickly using up some extra chocolate or making a snack for the family. Magnetic moulds are not in my view essential for the beginner because you can just apply the transfers manually - but they are very easy to use.
5. Hot air gun - little Bosch paint stripper from Amazon. Always kept to hand to sort out anything which crystallises too quickly in the bowl or on my equipment.
6. Fancy packaging. We got some little boxes in bright colours with silver lining - great to turn your experiments into gifts. Quite expensive because you have to buy quantities, but worth it we felt.
If I were working at scale I think my top 5 would also include a vibrating table, but that's beyond my means.
Best sources of learning so far (apart from eGullet of course)
1. Callebaut website - fabulous range of videos showing how a master does the basic techniques. Also Keylink (harder to find on their website - look in "knowledge bank") which is refreshingly straightforward.
2. Several books recommended on this forum. Once I got past the basics, I delved into two masterpieces: Wybauw ("The Ultimate Fine Chocolates", a revised compilation of his previous books) and Greweling ("Chocolates and Confections"). These are just awe inspiring.
Most useful ingredients so far
1. Callebaut couverture "callets" in 2.5kg bags - quick to measure, easy to re-seal. Everyone should start with 811 and 823, the "standards" ... but I soon moved to more exotic flavours. Current favourites are Cacao Barry Alunga (rich milk), Callebaut Velvet (white but not as cloying as the usual one; lovely mouthfeel), and half a dozen Cocoa Barry dark chocolates which go with particular ingredients.
2. Boiron frozen fruit purees. These are just amazing. I struggled with lots of different approaches to fruit flavouring until I discovered these. The problem is that most liquid purees have a short life span and are quite expensive if you only need a little quantity - whereas the Boiron ones just live in a neat, stackable tub in the freezer. Grab a flavour, pop it out onto a chopping board, slice off what you need, return the rest to the freezer. And the range is fabulous. So far I've particularly enjoyed raspberry, passion fruit, kalamansi (wow!) blackcurrant, and Morello cherry. (I'm experimenting with banana but most banana chocolate recipes seem to need caramel which I don't find so easy to perfect.)
3. IBC "Power Flowers" so I can mix my own coloured white chocolate with a wide palette of colours, for brushing or piping into moulds as decoration. Quite tricky to scale down to the tiny amounts I need, but I found this far better than heating little bottles of cocoa butter and being restricted to the colours I had.
4. Marc de Champagne 60% - great for truffles. My supplier sends it in a little chemical bottle which is a little un-champagne-like, but never mind. Rose drops (oil-based) were also useful for truffles if you like that sort of thing.
Suggestions for learners (aka things I wish I had got right)
1. Start learning in winter. There is a HUGE amount of cooling needed in chocolate making; once we had cold weather we could close off a room, turn off its heating, and create a cool room. Made a big difference to productivity (and quality!).
2. Don't do anything involving caramel, marshmallows, turkish delight, or other temperature-critical sugar work until you are confident with everything else - or you will get demoralised quickly. Or maybe I'm just rubbish at these techniques.
3. Learn simple decoration (cocoa butter colour, texture sheets etc) early on. These make a big difference to how everyone will react to your work.
4. Don't rush. Chocolate making takes a lot of (elapsed) time. Give things time to crystallise properly. I find there is always an endless amount of cleaning-up to do while I wait :-)