There is perhaps nothing more enticing in the impulse-purchase section of your neighborhood Kowalski's or Lund's/Byerly's than the delicately shaped chocolates peaking out from behind the plastic windows in a tidy box of B.T. McElrath chocolates. The visionary behind the truffles, toffees, and tasty tidbits is Brian McElrath, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, winner of the Gallo Family Vineyards' Gold Medal Award, and two-time winner of the National Associate of the Specialty Food Trade award. He talked to City Pages from his factory in the onetime Betty Crocker R&D space.
City Pages: How did you first become interested in chocolate?
Brian McElrath: As a young boy my mother and grandmother made delicious chocolate things, but I really got excited about chocolate in culinary school. I am a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and as part of the pastry program I worked with a very talented Swiss pastry chef, a chocolatier, and thats where I was really introduced to European-style chocolates.
CP: What were some of the things that your mother and grandmother cooked?
BM: Everything. My grandparents had a farm in southern Minnesota so they were baking cookies and cakes and piesyou name it, pretty much all the time.
CP: Is there any one thing that stands out?
BM: My mom—her chocolate chip cookies and her German chocolate cakes were really great. And then my grandmother made a chocolate pie that was really exceptional. I still have a thing for German chocolate cake, Ill tell you that.
CP: What is tempering?
BM: The technical term for tempering is called pre-crystalization. The fat in the cocoa, in the cacao or the chocolate, has a molecular structure to it and you have to manipulate it in order to get the proper structure. There are several different crystals that can form in that vat. One of them is the stable form. And you really need to be careful with the way you handle the chocolate. Its very heat sensitive and you have to put it through what we call a temperature curve where you heat it to melt all the crystals and then you cool it to generate the specific type that youre looking for. And then you have an operating temperature in between those two processes that allows you to work with the chocolate while its fluid. The tempering process will essentially harden the chocolate. It will cause it to have a higher melt point. It will give it a nice crispy texture. The chocolate will contract so that if youre doing molded pieces, the chocolate will be a little bit smaller so that the chocolates will fall out of the molds without too much effort. Its a critical aspect for premium chocolate. Well, for anyone who works with real chocolate.
CP: What are the latest trends in chocolate?
BM: The current trends in chocolate really are a push toward dark chocolate with a higher percentage of cacao. When I say cacao, that's the chocolate itself. Chocolate has several ingredients in it: sugar, and sometimes milk powder or full cream milk powder for milk chocolate. And what people are looking for are percentages usually somewhere above 50 percent cacao. The rest of it would be sugar or cocoa butter or other flavors. And then people within that same dark craze are interested in the origin of where the chocolate comes from, the same way that we are with wine or coffee.
CP: What are some of the hot spots for chocolate?
BM: Cacao will grow within twenty degrees of the equator. Most of the chocolate or cacao grown in the world is going to come from west Africa and theres also chocolate from South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Vietnam. Those are generally the most popular places.
CP: Can you taste the difference between the chocolates from those different locations?
BM: Absolutely. Chocolate will be affected by terroir the same wine will be affected by terroir.
CP: And whats your favorite location to get chocolate from?
BM: I like blends, but in terms of single origin chocolate, I like Ecuador and Columbia. Venezuelan chocolate is also extremely high quality, very delicious, very distinctive flavor. My personal palate is for the brighter notes that youll find in those South American varieties.
CP: Is part of the reason why theres a trend towards darker chocolate because of the health benefits or is it just purely a taste thing?
BM:Well, I think its a combination of the two. M&M/Mars did that study about the health benefits of the antioxidants in chocolate. I think thats really great, but I think just in general, peoples awareness of quality has increased and their awareness and education about chocolate has become really widespread and along with that. Theres some really great milk chocolates for sure, but they all start with really great dark chocolate.
CP: You're known for having surprising flavor combinations. What was the single most surprisingly horrible flavor combination that you've come up with?
BM: That's easy. Early in my career, for a competition, I made a curried cherry wasabi mousse. I curried some cherry—you know, I'm thinking about the brandied cherries or I'm thinking about the cherry cordials that everybody likes. I decided to put a twist on that. I made almost a mango chutney flavor profile with this cherry mixture and then I made a white chocolate mousse with wasabi. It was a clash, just a total flop.
CP: Did you end up entering it?
BM: I put it in the competition. It did OK. That was the early days.
CP: True or false: life is like a box a chocolate?
BM: Yeah. I suppose.
CP: In what way?
BM: Life is like a box of chocolates because sometimes the mystery and not knowing whats going to be on the inside and whats going to happen next is as goodthinking about that and anticipating that can be as good as the experience itself. A box of chocolates to me, there again you start out with something that is beautiful and you go through a process of opening it. Perhaps you untie the bow and pull back the lid. Theres some tissue in there. Theres some nice little tags. And then you see there are these beautiful little individual items in there that are all unique, and then theres another reveal inside each piece of chocolate. Its a discovery process. Theres a lot of history and a lot of tradition between a box of chocolate. Its an expression of love and an expression of appreciation and its also a way to treat oneself, you know, because everyone works so hard, we all deserve a box of chocolate.
CP: I wish you were my boss. What is your biggest seller?
BM: Our biggest seller is going to be our English toffee. Were really known for super premium English toffee. Its made out of Hope Creamery butter, pure cane sugar, and delicious milk chocolate. Our most popular chocolate truffle is going to be our passion fruit.
CP: At the end of the day, are you ever just sick and tired of chocolate?
BM: Never. I love chocolate. It's in my blood: I've never gotten sick of it. You know, sometimes you get tired of something that's a little sweeter and you need to try something different, so you sample some dark chocolate. It's all about mood. People always ask me what my favorite is, and it's really about what kind of a mood I'm in. Sometimes I want a creamy, smooth, milk chocolate. Sometimes I want an intense piece of dark chocolate with such a high cocoa percentage that it just makes your eyes water because it's venturing into bitter. It's really a personal experience; it's about the time of day. What I like, you know, talking about the tempering process, we dip small squares of baking paper into the chocolate and then watch it harden; we make these small, thin, flat squares that we use to determine where we're at in the tempering process. And part of that process, once they've hardened and dried out, is we'll break them in half. If you've done your job well and you've got a good temper, you'll have a nice, crisp snap and a very clean line. I love to take those things and nibble on them.
CP: When people say chocolate factory, what springs to mind are chocolate rivers and oompa loompas singing songs. Is that at all what its like?
BM: Music is a big part of our environment down here. And when youre happy and youre content, youre going to hum and whistle. One of the better parts of my job is that Ive got a really great team. Everybody loves to work together and work hard, particularly this time of year. Weve got a tight-knit crew. We all work together. I have a small operation so everybody is cross-trained. Everybody will do a little bit of everything except for a couple of the specialties. So what Im saying is people can be working on coating chocolates or molding part of the day and then well start preparing them for packaging the other part of the day. And then we all join together at the end to clean up. So its kind of neat that way.
CP: So who takes care of the chocolate river?
BM: I take care of part of the chocolate river, but I have highly qualified, highly trained people to do that.
Brian McElrath and his creations will be appearing at the Twin Cities Chocolate Extravaganza. Good luck resisting the temptation. There will also be demonstrations, competitions, and a fashion show. For more information, visit www.mspchocolateshow.com.
Nov. 3-4, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 2007