The Alchemist

Kristine Heykants

B.T. McElrath Chocolatier

2010 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 331-8800

You've heard of rotisserie baseball, right? Where you put together an imaginary team of real players and pit them against each other in a fantasy league to see who would win? Or maybe you're more of a fantasy dinner-party planner, putting together a roster of famous guests, living or dead? You know, Napoleon and Groucho Marx, Cab Calloway and Mae West? Anyway, I've just discovered a new variation on the game. But you can only play it with Brian McElrath, founder of boutique chocolate company B.T. McElrath Chocolatier. It goes like this: Name the most improbable culinary ingredient you can think of, and McElrath will explain how it could be made into a chocolate praline.

Caraway? No problem. Mix it in with anise, mustard, cumin, maybe star anise, and blend those with a truffle base, then layer the result with something more neutral, like pine nuts.

Basil? "What comes to mind is tomato," says McElrath. "Maybe a white chocolate mousse flavored with dehydrated tomato powder. You could try to get a basil flavor infused into pure cocoa butter, and then add something with texture, perhaps crispy rice or cookie crumbs. Then, tomatoes are round so I'd do a round shape, perhaps a sphere. I'd want to enrobe the sweet center with a dark chocolate to offset the sweetness, and then I'd want to decorate it with something green and red, colored chocolate probably."

Lobster? A cinch. Infuse it into cocoa butter and combine that with a white chocolate-lemon mousse. Who says chocolate has to begin with fruits and nuts and end with liqueurs? Not Brian McElrath.

A onetime chef at Faegre's and the New French Cafe, McElrath opened his boutique chocolate company this past September in an auspicious spot: He occupies a space in the very same Southeast Minneapolis building where Wheaties were perfected--the research laboratories for General Mills at 2010 E. Hennepin.

McElrath approaches chocolate with a chef's culinary sensitivity, producing highly inventive, finely finished chocolates--Zinfandel-Balsamic Vinegar Truffles, Lavender-Black Peppercorn Palets (palets are basically square truffles). He packages these exotics in understated hand-stamped brown paper boxes together with more traditional chocolates--say, a dark-and-milk-chocolate truffle and a gianduja baton. (Gianduja is a finely ground hazelnut-and-chocolate mixture, and a baton is a long, rather than square, chocolate.)

Although McElrath has only had one swing through the major chocolate holidays--Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter--he's already won a fiercely loyal audience. "It's unbelievable," says Jennifer Holloway, cooking-school director and food buyer for Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul (877 Grand Ave., 228-1333), one of the first establishments to carry McElrath's full line. "I would say it's fairly challenging to try to introduce flavors like this, because people read the descriptions and think, 'What is that going to taste like?' But the taste as a whole is so incredible you forget the components. People can't get enough of them." This Valentine's Day, says Holloway, Cooks sold out of McElrath's chocolates before any other kind they carry: "They're amazing. Very traditional in their style, but very original in their taste. I can't say enough good things about them."

Neither can I. As someone who counts the continued existence of chocolate mousse as proof enough of the divine, McElrath's explorations of chocolate flavor leave me giddy: profoundly intense, expansively nuanced, yum. I especially love the Jasmine Tea Palet, a subtle combination of the flowery scent of jasmine, the twiggy, winey flavors of roast tea, and the deep flavors of cocoa that seems like a brilliant and perfectly natural direction for chocolate. The cardamom, cinnamon, and hint of nutmeg in the Scandinavian Truffle are another delicious, if rarely seen, combination, instantly bringing Christmas and coffee to mind. The Zinfandel-Balsamic Vinegar Truffle is so potent and rich it seems almost meaty.

Not all of McElrath's endeavors tickle my fancy: I could live without the lavender in the Lavender-Black Peppercorn Palet, which is a tad too floral, even perfumey, for my taste. "To me it's like two really good horses running a race neck-and-neck," says McElrath. "You've got the floral qualities of the lavender without lavender's acrid taste, and you've got the aromatic qualities of the pepper without the grit or burn of pepper. But some people think it tastes like soap."

McElrath likes to challenge palates this way. He's well-versed in culinary history and sees the '90s as a moment of chocolate renaissance following the nadir of World War II--when, says McElrath, "Hershey reformulated chocolate to have a much higher melting point. They added hardened vegetable fats, more sugar, and reduced the fineness to which chocolate was ground so that chocolate bars could be shipped overseas to GIs." People got used to this lower-quality chocolate, and Hershey bars became the chocolate standard.

Today, says McElrath, people are getting sophisticated about chocolate once again, embracing it in more refined guises and at more refined prices. He sells a two-piece box of one dark- and one milk-chocolate truffle for $3.25. A four-piece box is $4.95, and an eight-piece collection, which will get you every flavor mentioned in this article, runs $9.95.

When you see McElrath working on his chocolates, slowly making hand-rolled truffle after hand-cut palet, those prices become easy to understand. Each step of production, from the chopping and tempering of the chocolate to the flavoring, molding, enrobing, cooling, boxing, and stamping, is executed painstakingly by hand, mostly by McElrath himself, in a little monastic steel cell of a workshop.

When I visited McElrath he pulled a tray from a refrigerator case that proved the real-life benefit of fantasy chocolate. On it was what he calls his "chocolate sushi," a three-layered combination of crispy rice, wasabi mousse, and crystallized ginger. It was not a good chocolate--the wasabi didn't taste like much--and as McElrath had warned, it was merely an experiment. But it was unforgettable, unlike most of my fantasy dinner parties. What would Dorothy Parker have to say to Josephine Baker anyway?

B.T. McElrath chocolates are currently available at about 20 Twin Cities locations, including the Afternoon at the Mall of America, Broviak & Co. in Minnetonka, Haskell's in downtown Minneapolis and Highland Park, La Paperie in Woodbury, Provisions in Excelsior, Surdyk's in Northeast Minneapolis, and Turtle Bread Co. in Linden Hills.

MAKE LIKE BRIAN: Both Cooks of Crocus Hill and William Sonoma carry the chocolate McElrath uses, Belgian Callebaut. The following recipe is from Patricia Lousada's Ultimate Chocolate (Dorling Kindersley Publishing, $24.95), one of those big, lush chocolate books with lots of extreme close-ups meant to get you all hot and bothered. Once you are, you can attempt the 100-plus recipes, which range from Mexican moles to heartbreakingly ornate chocolate layer cakes. Whatever you do, remember chocolate recipes follow the unforgiving fabulous-in-fabulous-out rule: They'll turn out only as good as the chocolate you put in.

Mocha Petits Pots

* 11/4 cups light cream
* 2 tablespoons medium ground coffee
* 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
* 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
* 4 egg yolks
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Bring the cream and ground coffee slowly to a boil, remove from heat, stir a few times, and strain through a fine sieve or coffee filter. Whisk in the chocolate and sugar until smooth. Whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time.
Divide the mixture among four ramekins and put in a roasting pan. Pour in hot water to come two-thirds up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with foil. Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes or until just set. Cool, then chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream.
THE TREND IS CHEAPER WINE EVENTS: Hallelujah--it looks as if now that everyone has realized how popular wine dinners are, the concept is evolving into other, cheaper manifestations. The Vintage (579 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 222-7000) plans to start hosting a series of evening "wine gatherings," featuring a lineup of appetizers paired with a single vintner's products, for an affordable $15. Meanwhile at the Mall of America's Napa Valley Grille (858-9934) they're exploring "wine lunches"--lighter, two-glass versions of their luxe wine dinners--also priced at $15 per person. The next two scheduled are May 13, featuring Deloach Vineyards wine, and June 18, for the Benziger Family Winery. Call for reservations.

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BT McElrath Chocolatier

2010 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55413


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