This Valentine's Day, turn to Twin Cities chocolatiers for inventive bonbons and bars

Chocolates by Madmoiselle Miel and K’ul

Chocolates by Madmoiselle Miel and K’ul Lucy Hawthorne

Valentine’s Day. It’s a divisive holiday.

Some see it as a joyful celebration of love, while for others, it’s a crass consumer exercise in sappy sentiment.

But whether you’re looking forward to February 14 as the most romantic day of the year or dreading the reminder of your single status, we can all agree on one thing: Any excuse to eat chocolate is a good one. This Valentine’s Day, treat your loved ones (or yourself) to something sweet from one (or all) of these Twin Cities artisan chocolatiers.

K’ul Chocolate

Peter Kelsey was a cyclist on a mission: to create an energy bar that actually tastes good. While chocolate certainly fit the “tastes good” criteria, he initially thought it wouldn’t be a healthy ingredient—after all, it’s candy, right? But upon further research, he learned that chocolate with a 70 percent or higher cacao concentration is actually a low glycemic food, which means eating dark chocolate can give you sustained energy without the sugar rush.

As a scratch chef and baker with decades of experience, Kelsey didn’t like the idea of buying someone else’s chocolate. So he decided to dive in headfirst, attending trade shows, networking, training, and ultimately traveling through Central and South America to source the beans for his farm-to-bar chocolate, which takes its name from the Mayan word for energy.

For customers accustomed to paying a dollar for a Hershey’s bar, K’ul Chocolate’s price tag may register some sticker shock. But Kelsey notes that chocolate is similar to coffee: When you spend more money, you’re getting better beans. Most commercial brands—including the high-end ones—include vanilla to mask the flavor of inferior beans. “When people try K’ul, it’s like they’re tasting chocolate for the first time—they’re so used to vanilla-laced chocolate,” Kelsey says. And it’s not just better beans. Artisan chocolate consumers are also getting a higher-caliber roast. Each batch of cocoa requires a different treatment to coax out the best possible flavor, and this is where a skilled chocolate maker adds value.

Kelsey’s quest for a tastier energy bar inspired K’ul’s “Superfood” line of chocolate, which is loaded with ingredients like turmeric, maca, and evaporated coconut water. We enjoyed the Golden Spice bar ($24.99 for a box of eight), which pairs 70 percent dark chocolate with turmeric, ginger, ginseng, and golden berries for a nuanced combination of sweet and savory.

K’ul’s line also includes dark chocolate with more familiar flavors like vanilla, Marcona almond, and espresso, plus a handful of single-origin bars made solely with beans from a specific plantation. For the ultimate gift, try the “No Reserve” bars in ultra-luxe packaging. They feature elegant flavor combinations like pistachio and rose petals, hazelnut and orange peel, and soylé leve—a dark milk chocolate bar inspired by Haitian breakfast hot chocolate and flavored with star anise and cinnamon.

Find K’ul Chocolate at the company’s retail location, online, and at local co-ops, Lunds & Byerly’s, Whole Foods, Kowalski’s, Surdyk’s, and the Herbivorous Butcher—K’ul’s dark chocolate bars are vegan. 2211 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis; 612-344-4300

Chocolat Celeste

Founder and chocolatier Mary Leonard views her chocolate making as creating a gift that will leave the recipient grateful. Accordingly, Chocolat Celeste specializes in exquisite bonbons and truffles that are crafted to be both a visual and culinary experience. “This is not everyday chocolate,” says Leonard.

Her chocolate starts with high-quality ingredients: local, fresh butter from Hope Creamery; cream from a sustainable dairy that doesn’t use rBGH (a bovine growth hormone); and chocolate sourced from sustainable plantations. Since Chocolat Celeste’s creations are free of palm oil and extenders like high fructose corn syrup, consumers get more chocolate for their money.

Chocolates by Chocolat Celeste

Chocolates by Chocolat Celeste Lucy Hawthorne

The first thing you’ll notice when you bite into a Chocolat Celeste bonbon is the intensity of flavor, both of the ganache filling and the surrounding shell. Leonard explains that this is because she uses high-cacao-percentage chocolate made with good beans and proper processing. The flavor lingers, in contrast to mass-market chocolate’s quick hit of sweetness that leaves you wanting more (and eating more, as anyone who’s plowed through a bag of M&Ms can attest).

We’re partial to the Caremelia bonbon ($7 for two). The milk chocolate ganache filling is infused with caramel, so it features a rich caramel flavor without the stick-to-your-teeth mess. Other truffle and bonbon flavors include pear cognac, raspberry, champagne, Irish cream, ginger citrus, and lemon.

The difference between Chocolat Celeste truffles and bonbons is the shape: Truffles are round, while bonbons are square. Both have ganache fillings, but the bonbons’ flat tops mean that they can be decorated with tiny snowflakes, flowers, and even footballs. Each design is meticulously applied by hand using coconut oil transfer sheets.

Chocolat Celeste’s truffles and bonbons are available at the boutique and website. (Since the days before Valentine’s Day are among the boutique’s busiest, shop early to avoid the lines.) 652 Transfer Rd., Ste. 16A, St. Paul; 651-644-3823

Mademoiselle Miel

“Think about the finest things in the world, like the most expensive diamonds and the most luxurious vehicles—they’re out of reach for the vast majority of us. However, many of us can afford the finest chocolate,” Mademoiselle Miel owner and chocolatier Susan Brown points out.

Her bean-to-bar chocolate, for example, is made with high-quality cacao sweetened with organic Wisconsin maple sugar. Bonbons are handcrafted and are filled with raw honey harvested from hives on the rooftop of the kitchen and showroom.

The “Mademoiselle Miel” moniker is a nod to Brown’s honey-filled bonbons (“miel” is the French word for honey) and an homage to French culture. “Most people in the U.S. perceive there to be a divide between health food and indulgent food, without a bridge between them,” explains Brown. “French food culture has that bridge—while food is natural and there is a focus on terroir and locally produced foods, the food is also beautiful and indulgent.”

In addition to the honey bonbons decorated with edible gold leaf, there are seasonal collections with carefully curated flavors and embellishments. The current “Opening Collection” features rose, wild orange juniper, and cayenne caramel bonbons. Other offerings include smoked honey bonbons with scotch, maple sugar-sweetened white and dark chocolate bars, and honey hot cocoa bombs that can be added to a warm cup of milk for an indulgent cup of cocoa.

Mademoiselle Miel’s chocolates can be purchased at the showroom and from the website ($3.50 each), or from local retailers including Bibelot, Cooks of Crocus Hill, Surdyk’s, and Golden Fig. 342 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul; 651-226-4703