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The first thing that hits you is the scent: chocolate. Subtle, not too sweet, but permeating the air in the spotless Boulder kitchen where Chris Widlar produces her Concertos in Chocolate.
At the moment, she's pouring great swirls of the stuff over a sheet pan on which she's scattered dried cherries, smoothing it into luscious waves with a spatula. The chocolate is a mix of milk and bittersweet; she says this results in a slightly different flavor from semi-sweet. After a few minutes, she sprinkles peanuts and cashews over the top. When it's dry, this confection will be cut, bagged and sold as crisp, Widlar's version of chocolate bark.
Back in 1997, chocolate neophyte Widlar and a friend took Carol Taussig's chocolate class at the Cooking School of the Rockies. There they learned how to temper chocolate and make ganache -- the creamy centers for truffles and molded chocolates. "I made Christmas gifts that year," says Widlar. "Twenty-five boxes of chocolate. In 1998 I made a hundred."
Not that everything went smoothly in the early days. At times, Widlar's kitchen was a disaster. "It's like working with butter all day," she says. "And it's not easy to wash chocolate off dishes and utensils...We had chocolate splatters on the walls for months."
She remembers one morning when sunlight fell onto the table where she'd set out trays of chocolates. The light caused the chocolate to bloom -- to start separating and acquire whitish streaks. "We had to do it over," Widlar says. She has since learned to control the temperature and humidity of the kitchen; she keeps the door to the outside firmly closed.
"Chocolate requires a sensitive touch," explains Taussig later. "You have to understand its personality. It's like a finicky child that needs to be coaxed along, and you have to anticipate its needs. It's not just a matter of measuring and accuracy. It's really a matter of touch." Some of Taussig's best pupils in other culinary areas have thrown up their hands when it comes to chocolate, she notes: "I've had so many students say, 'I've tried tempering hundreds of times, and it never works.'"
But Widlar never gave up. In 1999 she decided to make a business out of chocolate and constructed a second kitchen for Concertos in Chocolate. It took three attempts to get the project certified by the Boulder County building department. By contrast, the health department approved the operation on the first try -- delighted, Widlar says, that hers was a kitchen that did not require ovens or open flames.
The chocolate is now prepared in a squat white tempering machine. "Chocolate likes to be moved," says Widlar, hovering over the contraption, "and the machine has a paddle that's continually moving. You still have to baby it a little bit." The machine also keeps the chocolate at a steady temperature. "If you temper chocolate in a big bowl, you're frantic to use it before it hardens," she explains.
Concertos in Chocolate products are sold at the Brewing Market in Boulder and Louisville and at Whole Foods markets in Denver and Boulder; they will also be carried by Nordstrom's at FlatIron Crossing, where Widlar will teach a chocolate class at Williams-Sonoma this spring. Widlar gets many calls from caterers for custom chocolates, and boxes flew out of the door during the Christmas and Valentine's Day seasons. Now she's gearing up for Easter. "We quadrupled the business from 1999 to 2000, and we're on the road to doing that again," she says.
Still, she intends to keep things small. Since she wants customers to taste her chocolates fresh, there's no point in trying to sell huge amounts nationally or over the Internet (although she does have a Web site, concertosinchocolate.com). "We like to micromanage," Widlar says. She and her partner hand-cut and crimp the gold and purple ribbons for the chocolate boxes. The chocolates themselves are beautifully decorated, with transfer patterns, musical notes or a dusting of pure gold powder. When the company gets a huge order, friends and family often come over to help. "It's a social occasion," she says. Everyone listens to music, chats, works several hours in the kitchen, and then, says Widlar, "we give them some chocolate and they're on their way."
"Our chocolate has a shorter shelf life," she adds, "and that's a blessing and a curse. When we do get someone to carry our stuff, we have to be in to check it and stock it every week. You have to be careful of how you grow."
Then again, the company does possess the ultimate sales gimmick: chocolate.
"We don't advertise," Widlar explains. "We take chocolate." And people who taste Concertos in Chocolate have a strong tendency to come back, bringing friends and associates.
Widlar's husband comes into the kitchen carrying boxes of fresh strawberries; he also has a package of roasted pistachios. Several of the truffle fillings include nuts; Widlar roasts and grinds the hazelnuts herself.
Widlar begins washing the strawberries, drying each one individually. She puts aside one that has a hole, sets aside another -- a hugely fat one -- that will, under her hands, become a comical bear. Before they can be given a crackling, perfectly tempered coating of chocolate, the strawberries must be wiped dry and brought up to room temperature. Just a drop of water in the tempering chocolate can cause the entire mass to seize up and become unusable.
Once a professional musician -- she still plays classical guitar -- Widlar has always had a passion for chocolate, particularly bittersweet. Before selecting the brand of chocolate she wanted to use for her company, she held several tasting sessions for friends and family. "You take a very small piece and put it on your tongue," she says. "It should melt right away. It should be smooth and rich, with no grittiness." Some premium chocolates, the group found, made wonderful coating but less wonderful fillings.
These are chocolates to be eaten slowly. The flavors are exquisite and subtle, and they take their time hitting the tongue. The coconut chocolates, for instance, have a milk-chocolate outside and a dark interior flavored with natural coconut purée and coconut rum. The coconut flavor emerges after a few seconds, then intensifies, filling your mouth with richness.
Holding the strawberries by their leaves, Widlar begins dipping them into the chocolate. One group is set on transfer paper to dry; these will have a flat side patterned in polka dots or a lacy design. Another group gets a coating of ground hazelnuts at the tip. And the third receives three kinds of chocolate: a dark glaze, a slant of white chocolate at the end and an overall drizzle of milk. These strawberries are sold at Whole Foods, but only the earliest and most vigilant customers can find them.
Few people in Colorado will have tasted chocolates as fresh as these. It makes a difference, says Taussig. "If they're sealed properly and you haven't whipped a lot of air into the filling, truffles can sit for a good long time even unrefrigerated, regardless of whether there's dairy inside or not. But I have noticed -- on the rare occasion that I've been able to keep them around long enough -- that a month after they're made, they just aren't as sharp. They don't really burst with fresh flavor.
"Chris just takes extreme care with each chocolate," Taussig observes. "You can tell just by looking at them, by how beautiful they are."