From Bean to Bar

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Askinosie chocolate bars are made from only cocoa beans and organic sugar.

Forgo foreign sweets in favor of the newly minted American chocolates and savor the sweetness of home.

By Neal Webster Turnage

Askinosie chocolate bars are made from only cocoa beans and organic sugar.
Askinosie chocolate bars are made from only cocoa beans and organic sugar.

There’s a new guard in artisanal chocolate, right here at home. American-made chocolate has all but overcome its image as capital of milk chocolate kisses and overly sweet chews, ascending to a level of reverence and respect formerly reserved for Belgium, France and Switzerland.

U.S. chocolatiers like Shawn Askinosie are making names for themselves through dedication to technique and creating a pure product. “We have two ingredients: cocoa beans and organic sugar,” he says. “We don’t use fillers, flavorings, chemicals or preservatives. That means the cocoa beans must be perfect because ‘off’ flavors cannot be masked.”

Scott Witherow of Olive and Sinclair uses slow-roasted and stone-ground beans to create the bars found at The Market at Sea Island that are every bit as refined and as their European counterparts. Along with perfecting their technique, American chocolatiers have also experimented with bold and unique flavor combinations, creating a new era for a classic treat.

“We’re seeing chocolate being paired with flavors that have never been done before,” observes Jordan Poteat, general manager of The Market at Sea Island. “A few years ago, adding bacon to a chocolate bar would never happen. Now that people are looking at chocolate through a different lens, combinations like that are acceptable—and great for us as chefs. We can take a bacon chocolate bar and pair it with something like squab and create a very complex dish.”

New Kids on the Block

A snapshot of some of the country’s most prolific artisanal chocolate makers reveals that many chocolatiers in business today come from some rather unexpected careers and backgrounds.

For instance, there are Rick and Michael Mast of Mast Brothers Chocolate, the Iowa-born siblings turned bearded Brooklyn chocolate artisans. Greg D’Alesandre, a former Google techie, now helms Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco. Witherow, of Olive and Sinclair, was trained at Le Cordon Bleu and has worked in restaurants since adolescence; while Askinosie bid adieu to his career as a criminal defense lawyer to become a bean-to-bar chocolate wizard, starting his own namesake brand.

The chocolatiers’ unexpected beginnings correspond to a freshness in their perspectives on the production process. Askinosie takes quality to another level by sourcing cocoa beans through direct trade with farmers on four continents. The brand has also set a new benchmark in American chocolate by making its own cocoa butter (the element that gives chocolate its creamy, smooth texture) in the company’s factory. Askinosie is one of only a handful of chocolatiers in the world to do this.

The Cook’s Parade

Such highly finessed technique and dedication pay off when it comes time to create statement-making savory dishes in Sea Island’s dining rooms and the sweet treats that follow. Poteat enjoys taking inspiration from The Market’s artisanal chocolates and going to work in the kitchen.

“I’ve paired white and dark chocolate with a number of foods,” he says, adding that he actively experiments with mixing flavors to make new discoveries. “Foie gras does well with both varieties as do gamey meats like duck, lamb and venison. We once caramelized white chocolate at a low temperature then shaved it over a pasta dish that had autumn flavors (roasted pear agnolotti with white frisée). It added a richness to the dish and rounded out all the tastes.”

Sweet Endings

Cortney Harris, executive pastry chef at Sea Island, recently introduced a flurry of sweets that highlight the new guard of chocolate. At Southern Tide at the Beach Club, guests can take away individual “mignardise” (a petit four, or small confectionary). There are also the highly addictive chocolate fudge and truffles, and, for a refreshing artisanal snack, Tavola at The Cloister serves chocolate gelato.

Courtney Harris' chocolate truffles
Courtney Harris’ chocolate truffles

“Just as sommeliers discover and describe different notes in wine, one can do the same with the chocolates,” Harris says. “Some have fruity complexity, others can taste smoky flavors. These profiles add subtle nuances to pastries.”

They also shine in Harris’ favorite artisanal chocolate decoration: a chocolate nest, created by wrapping melted chocolate strands, cooled on a marble slab, into a “nest.” As an accent for crème brûlée or a placeholder for dessert fillings like fresh fruit, each appears slightly different. Yet the pique of deep, sometimes unexpected chocolate flavor salutes the new guard of the world’s sweetest reward.

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