Sauce Sorcery at Sassy Sauces
by Genevieve Rajewski
Molten sugar roils inside a stainless-steel tilt skillet at theWesternMassachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield.The bubbling base for a rum caramel sauce gurgles ominously, erupting unpredictably and shooting amber strands into the air. Still, Sassy Sauce owner and creator Maureen Gallagher Harder remains cool, if watchful. “It has just about reached temperature,” she says, stirring the sugar nonchalantly with a metal whisk half her height. “But be careful: It’s like napalm at this point.”
When a glance at the thermometer reveals the magic number, Harder nods to her husband and production aid, Justin Harder. He helps her pour in a 60-pound bucket of tapioca syrup, which binds with and stabilizes the boiling sugar.
Since last spring,Maureen has produced her dessert sauces at this commercial kitchen run by the Franklin County Community Development Corporation. Her spicy dark chocolate sauce—70-percent-cocoa Valrhona chocolate, chipotle, Vietnamese cinnamon and cayenne—builds in heat intensity the more you consume, much like a good curry.
“Whenever I’m sampling it, people first say, ‘This isn’t hot.’ Then 20 to 30 seconds later: ‘Oh yeah, there it is,’” says Maureen. “There’s sweetness and cinnamon up front, slow heat, and then the last note is a kick in the back of the throat. It’s so good over sweet and juicy pineapple.”The one milk-chocolate product started out as a concession
to milk-chocolate lovers. “I don’t like overly sweet things, and milk chocolate, to me, was always cloyingly so,” saysMaureen. “To balance that out, I paired milk chocolate with caramel because its smokiness and buttery flavor counteract the sweetness. It’s kind of salty too and now, ironically, it might be my favorite flavor.”
Other Sassy Sauces—which are sublime over ice cream, with fresh fruit or breakfast treats or straight out of the jar—include bittersweet chocolate, peanut butter fudge and, soon, a vegan butterscotch, a mixedberry sauce and a Vera Cruz sauce (her first savory product).
“I had always worked with food,” explainsMaureen. “I catered in college. After I graduated [from University of Delaware], I did a short stint for Nantucket Nectars and then went and worked as a private chef.” It was while cooking on private wooden yachts in the Caribbean and off Nantucket that Maureen met Justin, who worked on nearby boats. Her sweet tooth blossomed alongside their relationship and, when she left boat work, she enrolled in Peter Kumps Cooking School in New York City, receiving a degree in baking and pastry arts. She went on to work as a pastry cook at New York City’s Café Boulud and Boston’sThe Federalist, assistant pastry chef at Grill 23 and pastry chef at Birch Street Bistro in Roslindale. She was working part-time at Sophia’s Grotto in Roslindale after the birth of her second son (now 3 years old) when entrepreneurial inspiration struck. “I had given bittersweet chocolate, peanut butter fudge and rum caramel sauces as Christmas presents, and everyone was raving about them,” recallsMaureen. “But one girlfriend said, ‘You need to make and sell these. My husband ate nearly a whole jar in the car using his finger on his way home.’”
Researching that idea, she spoke with “co-packers,” or companies that could manufacture her products under her own brand.” They wanted to change my recipe—so it wasn’t even resembling the original one,” she says. “But the reason my product was so good was because I was making sauces just how I would make them in a restaurant. I realized that if I someone else made my sauces, they weren’t going to turn out the same. People were going to think they taste just like every other brand.”
Indeed, the taste ofMaureen’s sauces crushes the competition, and the reasons are evident in her ingredients: She uses only fresh Vermont dairy and Belgian and French chocolate. For the rum caramel sauce, Maureen uses cartons of cream. Bricks of butter resembling gold bars bob in the boiling sauce, until they dissolve and lend a buttery aroma
to a kitchen already smelling like crème brûlée.Taste-testing frequently, she adds liberal handfuls of sea salt for the perfect complement.
Maureen recently switched from using corn syrup to tapioca syrup made from yucca root because of the growth of corn intolerances. Doing so caused her to nearly panic this morning, when it seemed the chemical properties of the new syrup might crystallize her sugar into rock candy before it could caramelize. “It’s always some sort of crisis,”
says Maureen. “Maybe the glass people didn’t deliver enough jars. Or you don’t have this or that.”
Justin, who says he got used to “MacGyver-ing” machinery fixes at their previous commercial kitchen, had a taste of that today. When Maureen realized she didn’t have enough rum on hand, off he went at 9 a.m. to a liquor store to secure a jug. “The store owner just said, ‘OK. It’s a bit early, don’t you think?’” laughs Justin.
Maureen, who jokingly suggests that her laboring over a bubbling cauldron makes her look like a kitchen witch, remains under the spell of her creations. “I would never want to turn over making my sauces to someone else, as stressful as it may sometimes be,” she says. “I am a chef at heart. I enjoy cooking and making my products—that is the whole point of me doing this.”
Sassy Sauces are available online at sassysauces.us. You also can find them at Bacon Street Farm in Natick, Savenor’s in Boston and Cambridge, select Whole Food Markets in the Boston area and farmer’s markets, including Bedford (Mondays), Newton (Tuesdays), Arlington andWayland (Wednesdays), and Natick and Hingham (Saturdays).
Genevieve Rajewski frequently writes about all snacking and sipping. Her publication credits include Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Cooking Light, Imbibe and The Boston Phoenix among many others. Follow her local food adventures this summer at wickedtastyharvest.com.