Recently, I took a much needed vacation and spent some time in a city that is very special to me. A place where my favorite people reside and a place that has a piece of my heart. Asheville, North Carolina is that vibrant city and there really is no other place like it. A stunning mountain town, tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where hiking is just a step out your backdoor, waterfalls, colorful falls trees everywhere, and the climate is somehow perfectly warm and cool. If it sounds magical, that is because it is. It is a food-lovers paradise as well. Asheville is home to some of the most diverse and delicious restaurants you’ll find in the entire country. Local and sustainable are a common thread throughout the community. Numerous food magazines have covered the food scene here and it has made countless lists as one of the best food cities in America, not to mention one of the best places to live. I can say that having lived there, for several years, that I whole-heartedly agree.
However, all of the acclaim aside, this is not the main reason that I wanted to visit. The true shining star of this community are the people. One place in particular, became a life-changing home to me and in it were the people who taught me what it meant to live, love, and to care deeply for what I do. My very first pastry position, was with the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, owned by Dan and Jael Rattigan. A remarkable couple who started out their journey by packing their lives into a 40-foot vegetable oil powered school bus, drove it all the way to Costa Rica, and opened a cafe and dessert shop. Oh, and don’t forget the abandoned cocoa farm. They bought that too. A few years later, they moved to Asheville and opened the chocolate lounge which is where my own personal journey with chocolate and pastry began. It was here that I honed my skills and learned what sustainability and the importance of supporting and caring for ones community really meant. An example set by the Rattigans and the team that surrounded me. I learned the value of local ingredients, from the mountain farms, that were incredibly flavorful and beautiful. It was here that I truly began to love and appreciate quality ingredients. All the while creating seasonal pastries for the kitchen and hand-dipping truffles.
When it finally came time for me to say goodbye and move on, Dan and Jael had intentions of opening a chocolate factory where imported cocoa beans, from quality cocoa farms, could be turned into chocolate on site. The process of roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, conching, and tempering chocolate was already happening in small batches. The dream was in reach, but I would be gone before it became a reality. I was thrilled when The French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room opened in 2012! I knew when visiting Asheville, that I had to spend time within these walls.
It was a joy to tour this beautiful space. From the intoxicating chocolate aroma that greets you outside, to the front tasting room that is filled with a wide variety of bean-to-bar chocolate bars and small bowls filled with bits of chocolate for you to taste and compare. The chocolate is outstanding. Smooth, aromatic, and each one more interesting than the next. Some bars with notes of nuttiness and caramel, others with hints of brown sugar and black tea, one with burgundy wine and wild black cherry, and another with coffee and blackberry. Many more and I am still working my way through them. Relishing every bit. I could not be more proud of what the Rattigans and their hard-working team have achieved. In no way am I surprised by the quality of their work. Having witnessed, day-in-and-day-out, the attention to detail and the pursuit of excellence. All imbued with a sense of love, respect, and appreciation for the creative process.
As I walked around the factory, I was able to see familiar faces and stop and catch up on life. The warmth of the people who spend their days here was something I cherished and it almost felt as if I had never left. As I walked out of the front door, with my hands full of chocolate and cocoa nibs, I was already imagining everything I could make. Too many ideas that I had to start writing them down.
First, would be caramels. These Chocolate Hazelnut Pink Sea Salt Caramels. I was wanting something portable that I could snack on. These would be a great gift to give for the holidays, or to serve as a light dessert snack at your next dinner party, or simply to have for a mid-day treat. As always, they are not too sweet, but chocolatey, nutty, and slightly salty from the Australian sea salt. Enjoy them. I certainly enjoyed the journey that brought them to me and the high quality of ingredients that went into them only make them more spectacular.
Chocolate Hazelnut Pink Sea Salt Caramels
Makes fifty 1 1/2″ x 1/2″ caramels
8 ounces heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped
Generous pinch of Fleur de Sel
10 ounces granulated sugar
1 1/2 ounces glucose or light corn syrup (also honey or agave, but this will affect the flavor)
1 ounce unsalted butter, high quality such as Plugra, cubed
4 ounces dark chocolate, such a French Broad Chocolates 68% Matagalpa Nicaragua Bean-To-Bar Chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 ounces hazelnuts, toasted, skins removed, and roughly chopped
Pink Australian Sea Salt flakes, for sprinkling
Line an 8″x 8″ baking pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a saucepan, add the heavy cream, fleur de sel, and vanilla bean seeds and pod. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and cover with a lid. Allow to steep for 10 minutes. Discard the vanilla bean pod.
In a separate large pot, add the glucose and sugar. Set over medium-high heat and cook until an amber caramel forms, about 5-10 minutes. Try not to stir the pot, as this may create crystallization. Just swirl the pot around if you start to see dark patches of caramel. This will even out the color and melting sugar. Once you have the desired color, remove from heat and slowly and carefully whisk in your warm cream. Be careful as it will sputter and boil up quickly.
Place pot back over medium-high heat and cook caramel to 230F, add the butter, and stir to combine. Continue to cook until mixture reaches 257F. Add chocolate and stir until melted. Add hazelnuts and stir to evenly distribute. Quickly, pour into the parchment lined 8″x8″ baking pan and sprinkle the surface with pink sea salt. Allow to cool and set overnight. Remove caramel from baking pan and place on a cutting board. Cut caramels into 1 1/2 ” x 1/2″ pieces. Wrap individual caramels with parchment or wax paper. Eat, share, enjoy!