Local Chocolate Artisans Create a Sweet Season
By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 12.15.18
For chocolate lovers, any time is a good time for this luscious indulgence. We mix it in pastries and showstopping cakes. We drink it by the steaming mug, drizzle it on waffles and sundaes, and favor it for lunchbox snacks. For some of us, more often than we care to admit, lunch is a hastily grabbed chocolate bar as recompense for a busy day. It’s hard to frown with a mouthful of chocolate. And while science points to the health benefits of chocolate as a conveyor of anti-oxidants, a natural stimulant and vasodilator, all playing into its alleged reputation as an aphrodisiac, but eaters know it really comes down to taste. Whether your favorite is meltingly light and creamy, or sultry and satiny with a snap to its bite with the intensity of espresso, 85 percent of U.S. consumers buy chocolate and more than 50 percent of us indulge at least once weekly, with sales volume expected to hit $25 billion in 2019, according to confectionery market researcher Mintel. Consumption traditionally spikes during four holiday periods: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and winter/Christmas. Mass-market chocolate treats march out the door by the ton at Halloween, but consumers turn to premium chocolates when it comes to holiday gift-giving and entertaining. That’s where small batch candy makers and chocolatiers get to shine. There are a trio of such dedicated chocolate shops within steps of each other on North Market Street in Frederick: The Perfect Truffle, Zoë’s Chocolate Company and The Candy Kitchen. Stepping into the ethereal hug of these chocolate-scented havens is an instant mood-lifter. The mesmerizing fragrance inspires a deep, sighing breath as the mind floods with pleasant memories and the atmosphere pulses with joyful expectation. That feeling is the gift we all want to give and receive.
Randy Olmstead moved The Perfect Truffle to 25 N. Market St. from Everedy Square in 2016. All production is done onsite. The shop is spare, except for plaques commemorating its awards. Nothing detracts from the true stars, the artful chocolate truffles. White platters hold orderly rows of chocolates in an impressive array. Each is meticulously crafted with equal emphasis on visual appeal and full-bodied flavor. Olmstead says studying at L’Academie de Cuisine under industry leaders such as Roland Mesnier (former White House executive pastry chef), Jean-Pierre Wybauw (master chocolatier of Belgium) and Mark Ramsdell (executive pastry chef) reinforced his drive for perfection. Today, he and his staff create more than 60 varieties of truffles, with recurring seasonal favorites and new recipes tested throughout the year. Gingerbread and eggnog are December exclusives. He encourages customers buying for themselves to come back regularly, since flavors rotate daily. On a recent visit, the gleaming case held dark chocolates “entranced” with robust port wine, represented as a cluster of shimmering grapes with leafy accents. A polished green apple, barely bigger than a thumbnail, is a delicate milk chocolate shell with creamy white filling encasing a flavor to match its whimsical appearance. The potently spiked spiced honey truffle is molded into a sunny yellow flower, while lavender blossoms steeped in cream permeate another flowery bite a few platters over. On any given day, rich maple and delicate chai tea varieties may compete for attention alongside white champagne domes, colorfully printed orange-cranberry squares and a mint-infused jewel dubbed “Northern Lights.” “Every flavor has a story,” says Olmstead. “My very first was passionfruit. … I made that one for my wife.” With it, he won the Frederick Chocolate Gala’s People’s Choice Award on his first day in business back in 2008. “Our newest flavor is the chocolate almond biscotti.” He debuted a chocolate-filled Advent calendar last month and serves decadently blended hot cocoa from a bubbling fountain “as long as Mother Nature is cold.” A former servicemember and nurse aesthetician who taught surgery, Olmstead chats easily about the science behind crafting the perfect truffle. He happily discusses the ratio of fats to dry matter in a recipe, then turns poetic describing the art of making caramel. He motions to their best-selling salted dark chocolate caramel, a collaboration with Wybauw, saying it’s “like the setting sun” because browning sugar transitions from deliciously intense to bitter and burnt in a moment. For a smoldering surprise, he recommends the nuanced cayenne pepper version. Olmstead shares, “We started a line of savory options,” including a rosemary caramel and a Chinese five-spice truffle. He strives for interesting and complex profiles. “If you just chew and swallow, you won’t get the subtlety. You have to let it sit on your palate and melt. You have to close your eyes and think about the taste,” just like a fine wine. He says passion and distinction evidenced in his truffles, as much as the high-quality ingredients, draw return customers. Bring the box back for a discount on refills.
Zoë’s Chocolate Company sits on the next block at 121-A N. Market St., a diminutive storefront slightly wider than its door. Inside, wooden shelves hold a slew of uniquely crafted chocolate bars, seasonal specialties, gift assortments and a few chocolate-based ingredients for baking or cooking. Warm family photos overlook the marble counter, homage to a candy crafting tradition that spans generations, back to Baltimore in 1902. Three siblings of the Tsoukatos family, Zoë, Petros and Pantelis, are co-owners while dad, George, is the master chocolatier. They started in Waynesboro, Pa., in 2007 and opened the Frederick shop in 2009, but the company has some vintage equipment, including a machine from the 1800s. Some candies take three days to make and production is done just over the Pennsylvania border. Items are brought in daily, although Zoë and Petros live in Frederick. They chose Zoë’s name for the company because it means “giving life” which, she says, “is exactly what the business did for us.” “Growing up, we loved helping our parents. It was never a chore. It was always fun, but we never dreamed of a career in [candy making].” The trio took other jobs, but missed “the smell of melting chocolate, the creating of bonbons, the rush from holiday excitement and … making people happy.” The family’s heritage shines through in a myriad of ways. Zoë says, “The collections are inspired by our upbringing. Honey, sesame and cinnamon, for example, are all flavors that are very prominent in Greek/Mediterranean pastries.” The “Black Daphne” is a square dark chocolate ganache flavored with Greece’s port-like Mavrodafni wine and hints of dried fruit. Fan favorites include the “Dionysus Baklava” flavor, a blend of creamy Greek honey combined with roasted walnuts and spice enrobed in chocolate, as well as their silvery “Fleur de Sel” liquid caramel and a black raspberry-filled morsel that is made with locally grown fruit preserves. One American classic, the gold-swirled apple pie truffle, is spiced caramel with roasted pecans. They offer vegan truffles, tahini filled and whole crunchy chickpeas in chocolate and cocoa power called “Chic Chocs.” Gingerbread, sweet potato and maple bourbon are new flavors this year. She says asking her to pick just one favorite would be like asking a parent which child they love more. “I love them all!” Holiday specialties cover hand-pulled candy canes, peanut brittle, holiday trees and hot chocolate made with a signature Dutch-process 24 percent cocoa, perfectly paired with the handcrafted honey/Tahitian vanilla marshmallows. “The candy canes have been a tradition in our family since I can remember,” says Zoë, noting that the peanut brittle is a family recipe perfected by George. She beams, “It might be a good thing that we don’t have this all year round so I can practice self-control.” Like The Perfect Truffle, Zoë’s Chocolate Company does a healthy wholesale business. It engaged in Norwegian Cruise lines since appearing on CNBC’s The Profit last year. Fans can shop online, too, for baking ingredients and gift options such as a martini kit, wine lovers’ assortment and fondue kit. Up next, chocolate classes for home cooks.
The Candy Kitchen at 52 N. Market St. is a relatively sprawling candy shop stocking a large variety of hand dipped chocolates and truffles, liquid-filled cordials, novelty treats, fudge and prepackaged classic candies such as Reed’s butterscotch rolls and “Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy.” There’s a substantial sugar-free selection. The mirrored shelves stocked with glossy packages are an eyeful of delight. It’s hard to choose among chocolate-dipped pineapple, colorfully coated berries, Mayan cayenne chocolate almonds, triple-dipped chocolate Brazil nuts and the lilac-hued raspberry mocha beans. The shop shares an origin story with Zoë’s Chocolate Company but is not affiliated. Longtime fans may remember the affable original owner Despina Leos’ welcoming smile and exuberance for sharing sweets. Lines would form out the door for her hand-dipped chocolate strawberries. Leos is Zoë’s maternal grandmother. She passed away in 2007 and is prominently featured on The Candy Kitchen’s logo. Mike and Tammie Smiley took over the venerable establishment from Despina and Petros Leos’ son John in 2015. He is still a company advisor. Mike says the opportunity to own the business appealed to him because of a fondness for the Leos. “I’ve known the family since I was in elementary school. … I used to have holiday dinners with them.” He’s happy to continue their tradition, using original recipes and classic techniques to turn out small batches of treats that add up to thousands of pounds each month. Production is in Waynesboro and the company employs 20 to 25 people between the two locations. Some of their 2,000-plus chocolate molds are more 100 years old. Like others who are serious about chocolate, the business uses a proprietary combination of imported chocolates and high-quality ingredients. Mike says, “We’ve tried to keep the traditional blend that people know.” For the holidays, The Candy Kitchen forms chocolate Santas, trees, angels and trains that are an annual tradition for many customers. In old-school style, it doesn’t sell online. Folks call and have orders shipped around the world. The chocolate and vanilla buttercreams are bestsellers, but options abound. Confections are infused with maple or lemon, raspberry, orange, coffee and mint, even Key lime. They stand up next to dipped jellies, nutty turtles, foil-wrapped cherry cordials and, Mike’s favorite indulgence, enrobed coconut macaroons. Tammie is partial to the almond clusters. Many selections are offered in dark or milk chocolate. While most people prefer to choose candies individually—that’s half the fun—the shop offers ready-made variety boxes for those who want to grab and go. Assorted confections are sold by the pound, while bite-size truffles are sold individually. They have an air of true indulgence, spiked with flavors such as Grand Marnier, amaretto, tiramisu and champagne. The staff won’t judge if you skip the bag and eat it immediately.
One thing the experts agree upon, don’t refrigerate good chocolate. Sugar is a natural preservative. So, basic chocolate, with ingredients such as cocoa mass, cocoa butter, vanilla, sugar and soy lecithin, without fruit or other perishable additions, is shelf-stable for more than a year. A cool-pack for shipping, if you must, is fine, but the delicate taste is easily distorted by odors in the fridge. They assert that consistency and texture are best at room temperature anyway. Zöe recommends storing chocolate in a dry, cool place, about 65 degrees, and wrapped well. Olmsted studied the food science of shelf-life. “Our caramels are good for six months. All of our other chocolates are good for three months, so we give a shelf life of two months.” With this in mind, his advice is not to wait until two days before Christmas to buy chocolates as gifts. He pleads, “Please don’t wait. You can buy them earlier.” He grins devilishly, noting that buying extra for yourself is one way to resist breaking into the gift stash. Then, “If they last more than a month, shame on you!”