This weekend, last-minute romantics will line up outside Sweet55’s tiny storefront in Half Moon Bay to pick up colorful heart-shaped chocolates filled with smooth mocha ganache and solid chocolate lollipops covered in Cupid’s arrows. A small glass window in the kitchen provides a glimpse of the gleaming steel German machines and the award-winning team of chocolate director Ursula Schnyder.
Schnyder’s journey to becoming a chocolate maker included a wide range of jobs. She opened a kindergarten in Switzerland and covered the rise of California cuisine as a journalist. Inspired by her time writing about restaurant kitchens, Schnyder trained in cooking in the United States and Switzerland before converting a cabin in her Palo Alto backyard into a professional kitchen.
Sweet55 was born in 2013 and opened its first outlet in Half Moon Bay in 2016 when Schnyder found an affordable location in Shoreline Station (known for being home to Dad’s Luncheonette) that could hold his gear in a cool coastal climate, perfect for working. with chocolate.
And now, nearly a decade later, Schnyder is bringing the chocolate factory to Palo Alto. In May, she plans to expand Sweet55 into the Town & Country Village of Palo Alto. This larger retail space will provide a showcase for pastries, cakes and baked goods, most of which are only available by special order due to limited space in Half Moon Bay.
Schnyder expects production to double or even triple or quadruple once the Palo Alto storefront opens.
In his kitchen in Half Moon Bay, Schnyder’s detailed candy-making process begins with chocolate callets, wafers made to melt, purchased from a small supplier in Switzerland. The shop sources ingredients from across the cocoa belt, a band around the equator with the ideal humidity and high rainfall for growing cocoa.
The shop’s signature chocolate is Bolivia 68%, which harnesses wild cocoa harvested by indigenous peoples in small quantities. A two-time winner of the Good Food Awards, Sweet55 works with suppliers who pay above-average prices to cocoa suppliers (exploitative practices remain common in the industry).
These callets are fed into Sweet55’s “Rolls-Royce”, an automatic tempering and enrobing machine that provides a steady stream of liquid chocolate that can fill molds or envelop ganache fillings. Fans of baking shows will be familiar with the temperamental nature of chocolate: it must be heated and cooled with precision to ensure proper shine and shine.
“Chocolate is very technical. It’s not an art,” Schnyder said. The Rolls-Royce keeps the chocolate at temperature and can even recalibrate itself whenever the room temperature changes.
Forming a heart-shaped chocolate shell decorated with gold leaf and glittering silver nuggets, Schnyder fills a mold with the chocolate flux from the machine. Then she empties it and leaves a thin layer of base. If the chocolate hardens too long before pouring, the shell will be too thick and will crack.
Despite all the equipment, confectionery requires a lot of skill.
“It’s not something you get immediately, the feel for the materials and all these different technologies,” Schnyder said. Temperature control is key to creating beautiful chocolate, and Sweet55 uses a converted wine fridge to set the initial layers of the chocolate shell and another set of cooler fridges for a final setting.
Many of Sweet55’s Valentine’s Day offers are filled with ganache, rich cream and chocolate mixtures. Filled chocolates can be made in two ways. The first method uses molds, where a bottom layer of set chocolate is filled with ganache and coated again. Alternatively, the ganache is spread on trays, cut into strips, then passed under the flow of tempered chocolate.
The ganaches are made in another machine displaying the merits of German engineering, “Stephan”. Stephan’s chamber is equipped with a vacuum that removes oxygen from the ganache, resulting in a smoother emulsion, denser product and better mouthfeel. According to Schnyder, chocolates need to execute a few basic elements with precision. “A perfect dessert for me is really the mouthfeel, appearance and flavor…is it crunchy, is it creamy, is it sweet?” she says.
While many of Schnyder’s chocolates receive a final layer of decoration, such as a logo printed with transfer foil or airbrushed Jackson Pollock-like designs, she considers her style understated and simple. Referring to her shop’s slogan, she said, “‘Enhancing the essence of chocolate’ (expresses) exactly how I feel about my job…the center is chocolate.”
Schnyder looks forward to welcoming customers shopping over Valentine’s Day weekend. She says she enjoys selling a small box of three chocolates tied with a ribbon printed with hearts as much as a large box of 25 candies.
“It doesn’t matter how big a gift someone buys if it comes from the heart,” she said.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication to Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see, and do in Silicon Valley.