Photos by Chad Chisholm, Custom Creations
Those who work with chocolate are foodies of a different feather. Chefs can take a freewheeling, improvisational approach as they cook, but chocolatiers and pastry chefs are nerds. Their creations are science experiments, requiring precise measurements, timing and temperature control. Yet, the things they make are whimsical, and enjoyed during life’s biggest moments.
We got to know three artisans in Denver’s South Suburbs who share an obsession for all things dark, milk, white and ruby. For them, February, also known as National Chocolate Month, is one of the most significant times of the year.
Finding her own Candyland in Colorado
Sweetness is imprinted on Mj Szymanski, executive pastry chef at Hilton Denver Inverness. Literally, her colorful body art showcases items from the Candyland board game. Figuratively, she and her staff craft hundreds of chocolates, petit fours, macarons, European bonbons and other baked treats every day for the hotel’s Elevate Coffee Bar, Breckenridge Brewery, Fireside Bar and Grill and the Garden Terrace, as well as special events and room service.
Born in Buffalo, New York, she went to cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh before moving to Colorado in 2011. She created confections at Hyatt Regency, Crave Real Burgers, The Ritz-Carlton and the Colorado Convention Center before joining Hilton.
How Twix led to truffles
“I was home-schooled early on, so I could cook and bake to my heart’s content. The first chocolates I made at home were probably these great nougat chocolate candies I gave as gifts. My go-to candy as a kid was Twix. I liked the whole chocolate-covered-layered-crunch situation.”
Chilling with chocolate
“Working with chocolate has some challenges. It’s very sensitive to the humidity in our kitchen, and the temperature at workstations and of materials. In the dead of summer, sometimes we’ll have to ice down our tables or move chocolate into a cooler and make chocolate garnishes in there.”
Working la dolce vita
“I’ve mostly worked at hotels, which I like because the work changes so much day-to-day. Being a pastry chef, I get to have this personal touch in special occasions. It’s a chance to be creative and do something crazy.”
Her chocolate pièce de résistance
“For special occasions, we make a showpiece dessert using a chocolate sphere. We pour dark chocolate into half-globe molds and piece them together. Then after cutting a whole in the bottom, you can fill the ball with whatever you like: chocolate ganache, square pieces of chocolate, little meringues, fresh berries. The globe is set in a bowl with pieces of cake. To present the dessert, we pour a warm sauce—either chocolate or maybe raspberry white chocolate or crème anglaise—and it melts the globe, revealing the filling. It makes a great display.”
Wow-worthy chocolate tricks at home
“It’s pretty easy to make chocolate garnishes at home. You need to use couverture chocolate, also called coating chocolate. It’s tempered and made to be melted and remelted. Heat it carefully in a glass bowl in the microwave in small increments: Don’t overheat or the chocolate will be ruined! And if you use regular chocolate like Hershey’s, the garnishes will fall apart.
“Set parchment paper on top of a cookie sheet or on the counter. You can use a pastry bag or a sandwich bag with the corner cut off to write words on the parchment. The chocolate can also be poured, spread and then, when it is partially set, cut with a knife or cookie cutters into shapes. Let it finish hardening and it will peel right off the parchment. You can, too, dip a small water-filled balloon in the chocolate to form a cup for whipped cream or sauces.”
HILTON DENVER INVERNESS
Englewood | 303.799.5800
A chocolate home on the range
When a mom has a home sideline, the kids aren’t typically excited to watch the work—unless, that is, you’re Melissa Murry. When she heads to her “working area,” her three young sons (ages 6, 9 and 11) are more than eager to offer some help. “One of the boys has a habit of coming in and picking bits of chocolate off the counter,” she says. “They each have favorite truffle flavors.”
Murry has been making a name for her confections through her business, Bittersweets Chocolate, for more than eight years in Centennial. Sweets enthusiasts will recognize her work from Centennial’s Curate: A Local Mercantile, Mile Hi Popcorn and Gifts and local craft shows. After a recent move, she has paused the business and returned to her first love: making chocolate as a non-lucrative hobby.
Why not make powerful flavors?
“I make Sea-Salted Caramel, Orange Rosemary, Espresso Dulce de Leche, Mint Tuxedo and Turtle truffles, to name a few. People aren’t sure they want to taste some of my flavors, like Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar. They’ll say, ‘that sounds disgusting!’ But then try them and want more. I make some truffles using singleorigin dark chocolate from Cultura Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Denver. The chocolate is fantastic, but the makers are purists—they’re totally anti-bonbon and truffle, but they’re willing to sell chocolate to me.”
The life of a chocolate snob
“When I was little, I really liked Twix and Hershey’s Special Dark. I don’t eat a lot of commercial chocolate candy, but I do like Trader Joe’s 72 percent chocolate. I am kind of a chocolate snob because I eat the stuff every day. Even when I’m on vacation I look for real chocolate shops. On a trip to Florida recently, I made my friends hike a mile in extreme heat to visit a chocolatier.”
Accounting for the obsession
“This all started a few years ago when I decided that I wanted to give homemade chocolates for gifts at Christmas. I took an online class, made truffles and everybody loved them. I became obsessed. My personality is Type A—I’m an account manager and love math—and making truffles became my outlet. I like chocolate because you have to follow a certain set of rules, but there’s also some creativity.”
Nobody knows the truffles she’s seen
“Frankly, it’s really hard to make money selling chocolates. Truffles are labor-intensive and I only use high-quality, natural ingredients because they taste so much better. I also don’t use preservatives, so my truffles don’t have an indefinite shelf life. For me, this is a real labor of love.”
From confectionary dream to sweet enterprise
Lisa Hemphill was pregnant with her first daughter in Kalamazoo, Mich. when she dreamed of the perfect union of American brownies and European chocolate truffles.
By then, “Chocolate Lisa” as her friends called her, was already living the sweets life. “I decided to own the name,” she says.
In 2005, Hemphill launched Truffnies to make that pregnancy dream a reality. A segment on the QVC shopping network and other media attention created fans across the country for her rich, creamy creation.
These days, the Highlands Ranch resident oversees the baking process. She and her team mix up Salted Caramel, the best seller, most often. Other varieties include Toasted Coconut, English Toffee, Italian Espresso and Caramel Apple Cinnamon, plus seasonal flavors like Strawberry Champagne for Valentine’s Day.
Let her eat (chocolate) cake
“My mother went to these fashion shows when we lived in South Florida and she would come back with a big slice of rich chocolate cake with ganache frosting for me. I guess the seed was planted then.”
It started with an Easy-Bake oven
“I started baking when I got an Easy-Bake oven as a present. I found that when I baked little cakes for my Dad he would smile. I started with the Easy-Bake mixes—which were terrible!—and then made my own. I eventually studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and The New School in New York.”
She took ‘sweet dreams’ literally
“It was about 25 years ago when I had that dream about combining brownies and truffles. I started experimenting and made versions of them for family and friends. The whole idea is that Truffnies can be served chilled—when they taste silky and buttery and melt slowly—or at room temperature to taste more decadent, like a rich, moist brownie.”
She outplaced herself into the chocolate gig
“I’m very high energy; I wake up with my feet dancing on the ceiling. Even when I worked in corporate outplacement, I always had something else going on. Now I just do this. It’s very therapeutic for me and I know I bring some pleasure to the world.”
Greenwood Village | 720.344.7400