The corner candy store may be disappearing, but in its place is a deeper, darker and richer trove of handmade chocolates available by going no farther than your computer keyboard. The Internet and mail order have put some of the best of the food of the gods within reach of any die-hard chocoholic, no matter where he or she may live.
Even better, no longer are imported candies necessarily considered the best. Like artists using primary colors to create many different hues and shadings, American artisan chocolate makers are taking candy to a new level, playing with texture and layering of flavor by using custom-made chocolate, deeply roasted nuts, intense fruit flavors, floral vanilla and even herbal infusions.
As a result, you can find American pastry chefs and confiseurs from New Hampshire to Beverly Hills turning out truffles, caramels and French-style candy bars flavored with everything from tarragon and grapefruit to flowery jasmine tea.
Exotic combinations, hitherto the province of visionary fusion chefs, are showing up in creamy ganaches cloaked with bittersweet chocolate. Paprika scents a truffle. Another sweet is accented by curry. The lush melt-in-your-mouth richness of a strong Kona coffee-flavored creme contrasts with the sweet, brittle crunch of a white chocolate shell. The citrus edge of lemon grass and makrut lime infuses a truffle inspired by the haunting flavorings of the Southeast Asian kitchen.
“I am a chocolate confection maker,” says New Hampshire-based Larry Burdick, the thinking man’s artisan chocolatier.
“I use good beans and rely on the flavors nature produces. I am a purist at heart and want to allow the chocolate to come through clearly.”
As you might expect, these chocolates are not inexpensive. Excluding shipping costs, you’ll pay $40 to $50 a pound for most of them. An extravagance perhaps, but reasonable considering the amount of work required.
Burdick forms or cuts each piece of chocolate by hand, an effort he feels offers a more delicate and organic effect. “I think it’s essential that the outside coating become one with the inside,” he says. “I hate to bite into a piece of chocolate and wind up with its outside shattering off from its center.”
Size counts too. Burdick’s chocolates rarely exceed an inch in length. “‘Keeping the pieces small isn’t a marketing ploy. They are rich and meant to be savored.”
Whether it is the brute earthiness of chocolate made exclusively from Venezuelan beans or the dark smoothness of a blend of cocoa beans, the crafty chocolatier has an instinct for combining flavors.
San Francisco-based Michael Recchiuti loves to play with contrasts. He’ll dip dried pears in a gutsy bittersweet chocolate, but first he soaks the fruit in Key lime juice. It’s an unlikely combination that sets off fireworks on your tongue.
“I’m not trying to mask the flavor of the chocolate with other things,” Recchiuti says. “I like the earthy intense flavor profile of El Rey chocolates exclusively made from Venezuelan beans. All of the characteristic fruity notes come through because they don’t deodorize the beans before processing them.”
Besides what’s in the chocolate itself, Recchiuti’s flavors come from herbs fresh from the farmers market. Like Burdick, he does not rely on artificial compounds or commercial extracts to give zing to his infused caramels and truffles.
“I don’t think of sugar as a commodity in my confections,” he says. “It’s unconscionable to expect people to pay for a candy made merely from caramelized sugar with a thin coating of chocolate. It needs to go further and to achieve a memorable few bites.”
Diane Kron, a Beverly Hills chocolatier, claims to have “100 years of experience” behind her confections. She credits her father-in-law with teaching her everything she knows about the art of chocolate making, and he learned from his father, court confiseur to Emperor Franz Joseph of Hungary.
In the mid-'70s, Kron and her husband, Tom, started a haute chocolaterie in Manhattan that developed into a mini-empire of stores that they sold more than 15 years ago. They moved to L.A. a few years ago (her husband’s in TV now), and Diane runs the chocolate show herself, maintaining control of the entire process from bean to box.
She roasts her own cocoa beans, mainly the sun-dried Maracaibo varieties from Venezuela. “It’s the deep, dark roasting that heightens the natural high customers get from eating the chocolate,” Diane says. If austere and intense can be used in the same breath, then Kron’s chocolates are the quintessence of both.
She even puts her aesthetic stamp on the packaging: silver-edged crates or star-shaped boxes made from a frosty acrylic material she says was designed to protect the Stealth bomber.
Freshness is key with these new-wave chocolates. Veronica Bowers of La Dolce V in Santa Rosa makes her candies in such small batches that they redefine the word custom-made. “Our customers have been trained to delay their gratification for a few days until I can get the orders out to them,” she says. “But freshness carries the day.”
What would your palate make of chocolates imbued with Meyer lemon or cherry blossom tea? Bowers draws from a well-stocked pantry of flavors to marry chocolate favorites such as Valrhona, Venezuela’s El Rey and Scharffenberger with a particular flavoring.
Trendy is not the word for Wild Rose Chocolatier. Based in Chicago, its owner, Lisa Hale, smacks English wedding cake tradition up against Americans’ traditional belief that the only thing better than chocolate is more chocolate. Hale stacks three graduated layers of truffles atop one another for the ultimate party favor.
Her “nut box,” an assortment of truffles and caramels studded with you-guessed-it, and her toffees are her best-selling items, all made from Belgian chocolate.
Though the chocolate is foreign-bred, the pecans in her signature pecan caramel truffle are pure Americana. Here, simplicity and sophistication melt together in one bite (or perhaps two, if you’re disciplined).
Pricey though they may be, hand-made chocolates are a luxury for which many seem to be willing to pay. No longer old-fashioned mom-and-pop operations, these candy stores ship real seduction via the virtual world.