Thursday, March 24, 2011

American Chocolate Week

American Chocolate Week
March 21 through March 25

Seriously?  Isn’t every week chocolate week?

No need to ask any chocolate lover twice for a reason to indulge and celebrate the food of the gods.
Bring on the heavenly, storied, melt-in-your mouth confection.
Aphrodisiac or health food? Who cares! 

A Cliff Notes dip into the history of chocolate reminds us chocolate is truly a Native American treat.
The Mayans of Central American cultivated the seeds of the cacao tree.  The warring Aztecs conquered tribes and demanded restoration and payment in cocoa.  Aztecs believed wisdom and power came from eating cocoa “fruit” and that the tree was stolen from paradise.
The Native Americans, by and large, drank their chocolate thick and unsweetened.
It was bitter by our standards.
But the early Spanish explorers saw the value of the cacao: it was used as monetary exchange and currency among the peoples and nations of American cultures.
It was also shockingly, temptingly, delicious.  Heaven and stars in the mouth.

Once the exotic, American chocolate discovery landed in the royal circles and upper crust European gentry of Europe, they couldn’t resist having their cooking staff add sugar to sweeten the chocolate.

Fast forward more than a few centuries and head Downtown to Kee Chocolatier on Thompson and Spring Street in New York’s SoHo or Midtown (inside HSBC) and the center of the universe is yet again where chocolate reigns supreme. 
No less authorities than The New York Times hailed Kee’s as “Hands down, the best chocolates in New York. Maybe the World.” And Martha Stewart reported: “One taste and you’ll be over the moon.”  Zagats perennially votes Kee the best chocolatier in New York.

Proprietor and chocolatier goddess, Kee Ling Tong, presides over her chocolate kingdom, albeit small at 350 square feet, she is not unlike the early Aztecs with regard to a dedication to purity.
The shop is simple and unadorned. No pretense.
There are just two glass cases.
One is filled like a Cartier jewel box, tiered with the variety of balled and intricate-shaped bon bons; nestled in carefully stacked Collections.

The other is a flat-topped case showcasing the petite, colorful macaroons, with chocolate-dipped fruit such as apple and orange and lemon peels, along with macadamia nuts dipped in chocolate.

Subtly, this makes the focus on the chocolates all the more pronounced.
One might think they stepped into a place of transition.  And in a matter of speaking, that is not so off the mark. 
The chocolates are so in demand, the contents of the cases are replenished at least a dozen times a day.
Constant change.  Always fresh.

And the concept of transition and change is also a metaphor for the alchemy Kee orchestrates phasing the chocolate from a pure block to the one of a kind, exquisite chocolate recipes she creates.

Kee inserts her handmade, locally-sourced fillings. After cooling, she hand breaks the molds in order to retain the thin, pure shell that "snaps" when one bites into the chocolate bon bon. 

Then the team rolls the outer flavors and herbs:  

While enjoying a successful Wall Street career at JP Morgan and Bear Stearns, this native New Yorker was stubbornly determined to follow her passion.
She enrolled in professional training at The French Culinary Institute. 
She claims she wasn’t exactly the best student at thinning and making chocolate.  Hard to believe!  Maybe because she was going to make chocolate in a new, special way all along…

In 2002, upon graduation, she found the space at 80 Thompson Street. “It drew me in” she says. 
It served as both retail and production space until she got the space across the hall three years ago where the production is now.
Kee doesn’t have far to go for work. She lives upstairs. 
“I can roll out of bed and work my 12-14 hour days.” She jokes.  

Here she is with her sales associate: Josie.

Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Kee found her calling.
“I like making tiny, pretty, intricate things,” she says, in case staring at the exquisite, mesmerizing confections reflecting through the glass left any doubt.
Key to her distinctive art are a few elements:
  • All the chocolates are hand made daily at her shop: she mixes the chocolates, makes the molds. She adds no sugar to the chocolate
  • All the filling recipes are her own creation, (“I never looked at a recipe and I don’t share,” she said.  She uses top-quality, local ingredients – herbs and fruits – from Chinatown and NY Greenmarkets.
  • The “crack” or “snap” one senses biting into the ultra thin shell is critical
  • Good, pure chocolate has its own shine (and not an oil-based sheen)
  • Clean finish; no after taste
Kee has 48 flavors in her eclectic chocolate portfolio, with about 35 in the case at any one time.  Four are white chocolate, including Green Tea, Almond, and Pistachio.  
Gleefully, one can select from bon bons filled honey, jasmine, ginger and saffron; coated with chile, white and dark sesame; a dark chocolate ganache; Black Rose with dark chocolate truffle with black tea infused with rose petals; Blended Peppercorn with four different peppercorns with dark chocolate ganache; Elderflower – dark chocolate ganache with elderflower and Coconut with dark chocolate truffles coated with toasted coconut.

Kee offers four seasonal fillings, two in the spring: pineapple lychee and mango green and two for the winter: honey kumquat and yuzu.

According to Kee, her best seller is the crème brulee.  It sells out early too.

She just added a new flavor: Lotus Flower, a gift from a friend who had traveled to Vietnam.  Kee waved her magic wonder wand and next thing you know – a new exotic Kee chocolate creation.

Kee makes 22 flavors of the glamorous macaroons including key lime, shiso, green tea with jasmine, rosewater lychee, kaffir lime and truffle oil. 

Looking ahead, she is considering making pate te fois, or jelly-coated fruit with sugar.  Another eye candy treat for sure!

In fact, it’s hopeless. Just a taste, renders one under the spell of Kee’s magical chocolate spell.

Kee tempers all her chocolate, makes her molds and “eyeballs” the ingredient measurements for the fillings. There are no exact or precise renderings. It’s all Kee’s artisanal culinary talent. 
At the same time, she says it’s all “A learning process” -- from the making of the chocolate to the business management.  

Kee is a hands-on, artisanal chocolatier, dedicated to the highest quality hand made chocolate who is front and center for her customers, (“How are the twins?” she asks of a customer”) to her staff, Josie and international clients, (“I’ll do my best” she confirms to a London caller.)

There is no finer example of American Chocolate, than Kee Chocolatier

to see a full listing of the divine, exquisite specialties.

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