Chocolatier Brian McElrath says 20 years ago, very few Americans would be willing to try chocolate with a hint of balsamic vinegar. And just forget about putting a Chile-Limon truffle in your mouth.
But McElrath says in the late 1980s, Americans became educated about food and were willing to open themselves up to new taste sensations. People began craving high-quality, better-tasting foods.
"I kind of liken it to coffee, with the emergence of specialty coffee and large chains," says McElrath. "Three-dollar lattes. You know when I grew up, a cup of joe was a quarter. There again, that changed, and chocolate changed in a similar fashion."
Brian McElrath, a trained chef, says he wanted to use his culinary skills to satisfy the evolving American palate. He thought making fine chocolates would be an outlet for him to literally play with food, and to create distinctive blends of tastes and textures.
"The balsamic vinegar and the Zinfindel wine were part of a salad dressing from my earlier chef days," McElrath says. "I found that the fruitiness of the wine and the smokiness of the vinegar could accentuate the taste of the chocolate."
McElrath's approach to chocolate relies on his experience as a chef. He says a traditional chef spends hours in the kitchen constructing dishes. Instead, McElrath deconstructs things, and focuses on the flavor elements.
"I'll take the Asian flavor profiles of ginger, lime leaves, coconut milk -- things that they use in curries or in a pad thai. I'll take the elements that I think will work well with chocolate and I'll reconstruct them," he says.
McElarth's chocolates are made in a squat brick industrial center in Minneapolis. The building, on E. Hennepin Ave., has a colorful history.
During World War II it was home to the scientists who invented the "black box," the cockpit recorders used in airplanes.
It was also the site of the first Betty Crocker Test Kitchen for General Mills. Cheerios and Wheaties were developed there.
Brian McElrath says the building's history as a food lab convinced him to sign the lease and start his company in 1996.
As McElrath gives a tour of the building, he stops in the candy kitchen, which is filled with the intense aroma of chocoate. McElrath says this room is his favorite place.
"This is where we have all of the machines that are going to melt and stir. We're going to be molding candies in here. We'll be enrobing our centers that we created in the kitchen," says McElrath. "This is the heart of the operation so to speak."
In the next room is a machine that looks a bit like a mill wheel, and it's sort of churning the chocolate.
"This is a tempuring machine. They're made in Holland," says McElrath. "We have one for each color of the chocolate. Indeed, the spinning wheel that you described there is going to stir and agitate the chocolate. It's also going to deliver the chocolate up to a spout, up to a hopper that will drop the proverbial chocolate waterfall out of that spout, which will allow us to fill up molds. It will allow us to use our coating device."
One of the most tempting parts of working at a chocolate factory is seeing all the sweets, and not being able to taste it. But McElrath says there actually is a taste-testing process.
"In order to determine if the chocolate has the correct hardness to it, we'll dip a little square of paper so we get a nice, thin even coating. And then we'll lay that down onto our marble table. Within three to five minutes that has to change in appearance. And that's my favorite treat of the day," McElrath says.
"This is a test strip, so we want to make sure our chocolate has been tempered correctly. It should have a nice, crisp snap to it, and dissolve slowly on your palate," says McElrath. "By the time you take a second bite, you should also have the chocolate melting a little bit on your fingers."
Although many of McElrath's unusual chocolates are popular and very tasty, occasionally he has gone wrong. For example, there was the time McElrath whipped up a white chocolate mousse and added wasabi powder and curried cherries. He says it was a disaster.
Brian McElrath says that's not the case with this year's special Valentine's Day flavor combination -- a dark chocolate heart covering a black cherry ganache.