Sarah Hart has been making sumptous, inventive chocolates for many years at her sweet little shop in NE Portland, Oregon. It was one incredible (and decadent!) morning, spending time with her creating the artful confections that are so easy to gobble up. Pull up a chair, your favorite truffle and a strong cup of coffee as Sarah divulges the secrets of the indomitable cocoa bean! I first discovered Alma Chocolates while sampling my heart out at the Portland Farmer's market. After returning to the small bowl of ginger, caramel, dark chocolate bark for the fifth time, I had to inquire about this gastronomic flavor bomb. Where does this perfect morsel come from? Turns out, Sarah produces chocolate confections as well as heavenly baked goods in a charming shop in my neighborhood of NE Portland. This is a mixed blessing, as it's just all that much easier to swing by for one of her exquisite truffles, flavored with thai curry or sesame paste, perfectly balanced with single–origin velvety chocolate robes or a pot of lavender–infused caramel.
Sarah's expertise and creativity are apparent in all of her heavenly chocolates, which are amazing to eat and beautiful to behold. We are lucky enough to have her talk us through her chocolate–making process as well as listen to her tips for the home chocolatier!
5 Questions for Sarah Hart
1. How did you first start creating artisan chocolates?
I got bit by the chocolate bug and so I checked out every book I could on artisan chocolate making. The ones that first influenced me were Maricel Presilla's New Taste of Chocolate, and Robert Linxe's La Maison du Chocolat: Transcendent Desserts by the Legendary Chocolatier. This was 2004, at the beginning of the US artisan chocolate explosion and both of those really caught my imagination and fit with my philosophy that chocolate is so amazing and nuanced and has such a rich cultural history that it needed to be presented in a new and exciting way.
Then I realized that I could try reinventing the wheel in terms of craft or find a master to study with. I sought out Ian Titterton, formerly of Moonstruck and he taught me the basics and I took off from there.
2. What do you enjoy most about fine chocolate?
It is such a sensual experience. When you savor good chocolate, let it melt on your tongue, you can be transported. All the nuances and flavors are so different depending on the origin of the chocolate and the chocolate maker and I love really tasting that.
3. Tell us about the process of deciding on and testing flavor combinations for your unique truffles and bars.
Hmm. Like most people I know who love to cook, I read cookbooks and food magazines and blogs like literature. And often there will be a recipe for something that is not at all dessert, but that has an ingredient liked smoked paprika or something like that, and it catches my imagination. I can taste how it will go with a particular chocolate and I get excited to try and see how it works! Then it is trial and error, like any cooking process.
I love winging it but I have learned to document the process so that I can track the changes and adjustments in ratios of things, so that we can duplicate it again once we finally "get there". Often I think my sub–concious is working on a recipe so it 'seems" to come out full-blown but I don't really think that is true. It is just that like any craftsperson or artist, I am always inputting data and my back brain is working working working. I love that part of the process the most.
4. Any advice for the home cook on attempting to make our own chocolatey treats?
You have to just go for it. Barks are super easy and really tasty. You essentially just pour a big slab of chocolate mixed with whatever you love, let it cool, break it up and package it. I love salted pistachios and candied orange peel and a little sprinkle of sea salt. Sea salt on chocolate is genius. It elevates it. But use a light hand and a nice flaky salt such as Maldon's flake salt. Chocolate and salt hits all the pleasure buttons!
5. How can the home cook best temper chocolate?
I think using the "seed" method is best for home cooks. See this post at Serious Eats for a great description. Also, Trader Joe's "Pound Plus" bar is a good chocolate to experiment. It is a decent quality and relatively inexpensive so it doesn't hurt so bad if you mess it up.
Once you are ready to move on to a higher quality or to start experimenting with different chocolates you can order bulk chocolate online via Chocosphere. They have a great selection and are so helpful.Thanks Sarah for talking to us about chocolate!
• Visit Alma Chocolate online: Alma Chocolates
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)