May 22--It's just a wafer of chocolate. And I like chocolate. Who doesn't?
But when I took a bite of one of the Mondiants invented by Éclat Chocolate in West Chester, it awakened something unexpected inside my quarantined soul. The pattern-traced disk melted faster than a chunky bonbon and instantly cast a powerful cocoa spell on my brain. Then a liquid ribbon of intense caramel emerged seemingly from out of nowhere -- the fragile round is barely a millimeter thick -- and it was as if someone had flipped a wonder switch.
This wasn't just a hit of pleasure. It was a pulse of enlightenment and something new. The age-old truffle has been reimagined as a sublime coin by Éclat's Christopher Curtin, and I'm a believer now: The world is flat, and it tastes like chocolate magic.
How was it even possible that so much flavor and complexity could unfurl from such a wisp? Vision. Experimentation. Restraint in design. And a sleight of chocolate alchemy so obvious once you know it that Curtin declines to elaborate on its secret. The milk chocolate round threaded with fresh peanut butter is equally stunning, like a Reese's cup in prayer form.
"I have never seen that anywhere else," marveled Eric Ripert, the superchef Frenchman behind New York's famed Le Bernardin, who calls Curtin one of the greatest chocolatiers in the world. "It's so simple and modern, but unbelievable in texture and delicacy of flavors. You hit those kind of high notes very rarely in a career as a chef."
We tend to think of "chefs" as the freewheeling masters of the savory hot kitchen who nurture our most elemental hungers. But the Gods of Sweetness have their own brilliant chefs, too. Chocolate gurus like Curtin are among our best, with strokes of genius like the striped parallel bar series of chocolates spiced with savory accents, that have landed in the Museum of Modern Art's gift shop. Even his business is down 50% with the loss of restaurant, wholesale, and hotel customers.
But there are so many others also worth seeking, the pastry wizards, gelato whisperers, and poets of cake who are too easily overlooked during even the best of times. The pandemic threatens to sideline them further as purveyors of superfluous luxuries.
And yet, over the past few weeks, I've begun to think the opposite is true. I've scanned the city's ravaged food horizon for glimmers of sugar and hope, and rarely have tastes of sweetness delivered flickers of joy with such outsize value. I've found several inspired artisans whose blowtorches are still ablaze, their whisks and creativity still turning in forward motion -- the elegant churn of their own survival mode.
As popsicle queen Jeanne Chang of Lil' Pop Shop says, "We can't just eat bread and carrots every day ... A little treat in the freezer that you can use to make yourself happy is so, so important."
They've been there to help celebrate the milestones that keep coming, like an anniversary that felt right only once Franklin Fountain came through with the home-delivery fixings for a proper sundae (black raspberry for me) and a jar of their stellar house hot fudge. Or the high school graduation we're planning without the public ceremony but plenty of "Congratulations Arthur!" cake and cannoli from Isgro Pastries.
But no special occasion is necessary to appreciate the sparks of emotion a truly brilliant work of the sweet arts can evoke.
"These are the things that make us feel alive or connected to a childhood memory," says Fiore pastry chef and co-owner Justine MacNeil. "They make me excited about the day, keep the happiness and positivity going. These are things that make us human."
In MacNeil's case, the life force serum comes in the form of Rocky Road, one of the ever-changing gelati she's been selling for $9 a pint on Saturdays to help keep their three-bell restaurant afloat while husband Ed Crochet's savory Italian menu is largely on hold (save for a new pizza initiative). So far, she's selling 400-plus each weekend.
MacNeil, a veteran of New York's dining scene who mastered gelato while pastry chef at Del Posto, turns out brilliantly vivid combos that showcase flavor intensity and contrasting textures, from the silky salted caramel to a naturally green mint that required six pounds of fresh leaves to fortify before it was streaked with chocolate stracciatella.
Her favorite Rocky Road, though, is powerfully magnetic, its candied almonds and dark base of Italian chocolate ribboned with velvety streams of fresh marshmallow fluff. I've urged her to keep it on the rotating menu because, well, if there's a flavor emblematic of these times, it would be hard to top Rocky Road.
Of course, Philly is blessed with many fabulous ice cream artisans, from Weckerly's Ice Cream bars to Kensington's Flow State Coffee Bar (the Earl Grey gelato cakesickle and buko coconut-pandan sorbetto!) to relatively new 1-900-ICE-CREAM. (Gran Caffe L'Aquila, our best classic gelato maker, is currently still closed).
Chang's Lil' Pop Shop, meanwhile, has managed to channel an impressive array of seasonal flavors and childhood nostalgia into some irresistible frozen delights on a stick.
"I grew-up in L.A. and popsicles were at the forefront of my childhood preschool memories of snack time," says Chang, whose playground fondness for banana and root beer pops has evolved and matured into over 100 fresh recipes since the C.I.A.-trained pastry chef moved to Philly and started her business in 2012.
The seasonal bounty of the Clark Park farmers' market, not far from her original location on South 44th Street, has been a steady source of inspiration. Strawberry and rhubarb, garden mint with chocolate, and lemon bars with blueberry compote in buttermilk are among her current late-spring flavors. But several of the Shop's steady classics -- chocolate with salted caramel brownie, vanilla cream festively laced with rainbow jimmies, and especially a bracing Vietnamese coffee pop brewed with fresh beans from local Ca`phe^ Roasters -- are worth devouring all year long.
Unfortunately, the shutdown has crushed Chang's business by over 90% just as her busy season would normally heat up with the weather. She's reopened her Rittenhouse branch for Saturday pickups, which has helped. She's also banded together with several other independent food artisans for the clever Joy Box collection of local cheese, beer, coffee, sweets, and mushrooms that can be delivered to your door.
"It's been a nice way to pay our rent basically," says Chang of the Joy Box. "It's kept us alive, and I'm so grateful."
It's hard enough to survive this crisis as an established business. But imagine the stress of moving here from out of town to launch an Old City pastry shop in December -- one month before a water main break closed a stretch of Third Street near your front door, and then the COVID-19 shutdown in March?
It hasn't slowed Christy-Jae "C.J." Cheyne's determination to make her dream of Oui Pastries work. The 26-year-old Vancouver native and C.I.A. grad, who worked in New York at Daniel, the Modern, and the Four Seasons Hotel, saw Philly as an affordable land of opportunity to start her own venture. It's been a common refrain driving out-of-town talent to the area over the past decade.
She took over the space previously occupied by Wedge & Fig, and after a strong holiday season followed by a busy Valentine's Day, the future seemed bright. It may well still be. Cheyne, who'd been working alone since the shutdown, recently hired back an employee. And her creations are worth seeking for pickup or delivery.
Cheyne's love of desserts shines with delicacies like her lavender-scented goat cheesecake that is framed by walls of white chocolate. But I've been most taken by her skills with viennoiserie, including a two-toned croissant special striped with a band of cocoa-infused dough (also stuffed with coffee ganache) that she plans to bring back in June.
Meanwhile, Oui's bake-at-home croissants are just the lift my shelter-in-place mornings need. Literally. The frozen rolls thaw overnight in the fridge, proof for a couple hours, bake for 18 minutes, and then poof! They emerge from my oven inflated into golden brown whirls of flaky layers. Oui also makes them stuffed with savory and sweet fillings.
These are familiar pleasures, of course, rather than strokes of pure invention. But when I cracked open that warm pastry and a wisp of steam scented with sweet Irish butter rose to greet me, it was for one beautiful moment, at least, the only thing that mattered.
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