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A Better BonBon

Chocolate and coffee

Unpredictable. Alive. Magical. This is how Joshua Needleman describes the temperament of fine chocolate. Even after more than a decade of working with the dark stuff, chocolatier Needleman is still visibly smitten by its charms. “What other food crystallizes right before your eyes?” he queries, beaming like a proud parent as he reflects on the way chocolate can transform from a molten mass into a glossy, ultra-crisp bar.

Needleman, who owns Chocolate Springs boutique and café in Lenox, Massachusetts, is not alone in his enthusiasm for the chocolate craft. He’s part of a growing fellowship of culinary artisans, most of them former chefs, who are passionate about creating high-caliber American chocolates. Not only are these new-world chocolatiers making superior dark and milk chocolates, they’re also, characteristically, pushing the boundaries of truffle and bonbon flavorings. Make no mistake—these are not your granny’s chocolates.

Chocolate Revolution

At Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco, chocolatier Michael Recchiuti is as likely to be up to his elbows in fresh lavender, lemon verbena, or just-picked fruit as immersed in chocolate. A regular at local farmers’ markets where he forages for fresh ingredients and inspiration, Recchiuti works like a chef, fusing chocolate with surprise flavors from the garden and grove. The result is a very contemporary confection, including creamy chocolate paired with a hint of tarragon, star anise, cardamom, or a dash of pink peppercorn.

Katrina Markoff, chocolatier and founder of the elite Vosges Haut Chocolat company, has also reinvented the bonbon category. At her boutiques in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles/Beverly Hills Markoff’s “Friandise” collection includes truffles emboldened with the likes of coconut and curry, Hungarian paprika, aniseed, ginger, and wasabi.

Herbal infusions are a large part of Needleman’s repertoire, blended into such individual chocolate pieces as Lychee Red Tea, Chai This (with masala chai), Jasteasia (with jasmine tea) and Refreshmint (infused with home-grown fresh mint). Classic fillings such as caramel, raspberry, marzipan, and hazelnut are also available, but Needleman reports that mostly “the public is adventurous,” and eager to try untraditional mixtures.

Jacques Torres agrees. The former award-winning pastry chef of Le Cirque, now full-time chocolatier and owner of Jacques Torres Chocolates in Brooklyn, New York, believes that consumers are indeed curious about artisanal chocolate—and also very discerning, “Americans will take classes, attend tastings, really develop their knowledge of certain foods . . . they understand quality.” And presumably, they are willing to pay for it. Torres is banking on that as he recently expanded his premium chocolate business to fill an 8,000 square foot retail location in Manhattan. Called Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven, the new venture incorporates a café, chocolate shop, and manufacturing plant where visitors can view the entire chocolate making process, from cacao bean to candy bar.

In addition to playful chocolates for the amateur enthusiast, Haven will offer premium bonbons and “single-origin” products for the connoisseur. In this trendy new category of chocolates made from the cacao beans of a particular region such as Madagascar, Java, and Sur del Lago, products can vary greatly in taste, aroma, and texture. For this reason, Torres is a purist when it comes to crafting single-origin and other high-end products, “I don’t believe in adding extra flavors, fruits, or alcohol . . . this only dilutes the character of the chocolate. It’s better to keep the true flavor.”

Sweet Talk

Exquisite taste isn’t the only thing driving the latest chocolate love. There’s also “the dialogue,” says Recchuitti. “People are talking about chocolate like they talk about wine. You can discuss appellations [of cacao beans], single-origin chocolates, estate blends, even ‘terroir.’” He adds, “There’s also dialogue about the different styles of each chocolatier, just as there are styles among winemakers . . . my bergamot infusion may be totally different than the bergamot flavor from another [chocolate maker].”
The wholesale chocolate that these experts choose to work with also adds to the discussion of flavor nuances. Needleman blends five different couvertures from Valrhona to get the character and temperament he likes best. “I want a chocolate base that’s fresh, complex and has good acidity. It works well with the flavors I use.” Recchiuti also has his own proprietary blends, but works with many different brands including El Rey, Guittard, Callebaut, and Scharffen Berger. “Some have a strong roasty flavor, others are more fruity . . . I’m always trying different mixes,” he explains. Blending also helps the price point. “Some chocolates cost me a fortune,” Recchiuti admits, so mixing helps to lower his price.

Selling Points

In all this chocolate interest and exchange, restaurateurs can glean a sweet opportunity. Apart from the obvious branding of premium chocolate desserts on their menus, operators can also offer artisanal chocolate bonbon tastings, just as they do with cheese. Although hand-made bonbons from a chocolate artisan don’t come cheap—they range from $1 to as much as $3.75 per piece—that’s offset by the fact that showcasing pre-made chocolate requires no labor. In addition, these tastings can be paired with profitable beverages such as dessert wines and spirits.

But according to Recchiuti, one of the most critical things to consider in offering fresh chocolates is “the ability to turn them around quickly. Storage is really an issue in restaurants because natural chocolates will pick up flavors from other foods, like onion, or from smoke . . . and they’re sensitive to fluctuations in temperature.” Even under the best conditions—meaning a 55ºF, dry, untainted storage unit—most handmade filled chocolates have a shelf life of only about three weeks because fresh cream and butter are the prime ingredients used. In the chocolate trade, perishability is the great trade-off for delicacy. But isn’t that what makes its fleeting pleasure all the more sweet?


Quality Control

When buying hand-crafted bonbons, here are some tips for evaluating the condition of the chocolate:
- Compression in the underside of the chocolate indicates that the filling is shrinking and not perfectly fresh.
- Cracks in the chocolate means either that the fillings were dipped too cold or that the product is old.
- Fine chocolates should have a perfect sheen. Blemishes, bubbles, or spots indicate improper tempering or handling.
- Check the aroma of chocolates. Products will develop rancidity over time or pick up other off-flavors if not stored well.
- Fresh chocolate-covered candies should have a pleasing “snap” when bitten into. Ideally the crisp outer texture should balance the creamy center.

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