Elaine and Catharine’s Chocolate Factory
They met over a wedding cake. When a mutual friend asked Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney to make the dessert for her nuptial celebration, the women—who did not know each other at the time—could not have predicted the eventual outcome: that 12 years later they would form EHChocolatier, producing artisanal chocolates and bonbons in the Somerville building that also houses Taza Chocolate and Fiore di Nonno cheese.
It may have been a portent that the two, who were not food professionals, figured out how to create the edible seashells the bride requested by molding white chocolate.
Over the next several years Hsieh and Sweeney got together during the Christmas season to make chocolates, and they did some catering. But both had families and full-time careers, so their passion was a part-time activity. Hsieh was a physician specializing in internal medicine and women’s health, then a health care consultant. And Sweeney worked in admissions and financial aid at Harvard University.
In 2008, Sweeney decided to retire from academia. After 21 years in health care, Hsieh was also ready for a major change. About a decade earlier, she had completed the professional chef’s program at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (CSCA) and knew that at some point she “wanted to create a food product,” she says. Of everything the women had been doing together, they most enjoyed making and packaging chocolate, and began to talk seriously about starting a business. Hsieh enrolled in the online program offered by Ecole Chocolat, and took a master class in chocolate for CSCA alumni that was taught by master pastry chef Delphin Gomes. Sweeney took two series of chocolate classes with Gomes.
The women launched their business gradually, with no storefront. That meant most sales would be online. So in addition to developing recipes they had to figure out how to ship their highly perishable products all over the country in a way that they would arrive as fresh, attractive and delicious as they left. For nine months, they ran a Friends and Family program (which has morphed into the company’s Chocolate Club). Subscribers received a six- to nine-piece package of bonbons plus a bag of confections every month. This was a way for the partners to test recipes, work out the kinks of their shipping process and see how their relationship would hold up under the constant togetherness.
By the end of the period, “We knew we could be together every day,” says Sweeney. And they had some fabulous products.
Just over a year old, EHChocolatier now maintains a rotating catalog of 40 bonbons and confections. There is still no storefront, but in addition to the company website, a handful of specialty shops carry the goodies. The partners make everything by hand in small batches using the highest-quality ingredients. For the bonbons, Hsieh and Sweeney use Michel Cluizel and Valrhona chocolate, which they selected after testing samples from 30 to 40 different vendors with a panel of 12 tasters. The base for most confections—products like rochers, pecan clusters and the sweet-fiery ancho bars with spiced nuts, pretzels and Scotch caramel—comes from E. Guittard or El Rey. “The chocolate makes all the difference,” says Hsieh.
EHChocolatier products have no artificial oils or flavorings. Ganaches are infused with fresh tea, herbs and spices, which results in flavors like Chai Milk, Cardamom and Star Anise/Pink Peppercorn.
“We use local when we can,” says Sweeney of the ingredients. “If we feel the local product is worth getting, we prefer to get local.” Cabot butter and maple sugar from Vermont, locally sourced honey and peppermint, and chocolate from their own building (Taza) add richness and spectacular flavor to caramels and ganaches. Everything customers receive is fresh, as the company maintains only a tiny inventory.
The women’s combined culinary tastes and general love of food determine the collection’s direction. “We both enjoy the savory part of what we do,” says Hsieh. “By the time we announce a flavor, we’ve done several renditions.” Their sometimes-divergent tastes are a plus. Hsieh is a coffee lover and her influence is behind the Hazelnut Latte bonbon. The Three Teas, on the other hand, reflect Sweeney’s preferences.
Not every idea is a good one, they concede. But, says Sweeney of the successful ones, “When you find it, you find it.” These would include the current season’s chocolate chews, with soft chocolate nougat, which could easily become addictive; two new barks: a milk chocolate with caramelized almonds and Himalayan sea salt and a dark chocolate with candied hazelnuts; and a passion fruit caramel covered with Valrhona white chocolate. Mint melt-aways, another addition, were inspired by Sweeney’s father, a long-time fan of Frango mints. EHChocolatier’s version is made with organic peppermint oil and has an organic coconut oil base.
The work of creating, producing and packaging all of these delicious and beautiful sweets takes place in an environment that feels ordered and, considering the amount of effort required by so few people, remarkably calm. “The first three days of the week are very production heavy,” explains Hsieh. The last two days are more focused on packaging. The women also make time for demonstration classes in their kitchen, which include blind chocolate tastings, and appearances at farmers markets and holiday fairs. “Chocolate is really like a fine wine and you should eat it that way,” Sweeney notes.
During a recent 90-minute class, Sweeney and Hsieh led a small group through “the life of a bonbon.” Sweeney mixed a simple ganache, then showed how they cut it (typically it sets overnight) into individual squares on a wire-strung “guitar.” Next, Hsieh dipped squares into tempered chocolate and applied decorative touches using thermal transfer sheets painted with colored cocoa butter.
Though Hsieh and Sweeney do the bulk of the work themselves, they have a teeny, revolving crew of interns who volunteer their time. Currently, the team includes an M.I.T. research assistant who will be soon heading to the Culinary Institute of America; a Brandeis University student/CSCA graduate; a massage student; and Hsieh’s sister, Shing Hsieh, a former attorney turned jewelry maker.
“It’s a big help for us, and we teach them along the way,” Hsieh says of the helpers. “If they don’t have a culinary background, they start in packaging.” Like everything else that goes out the door, Hsieh and Sweeney designed the understated but elegant packaging.
They also do weddings.
For more information on EHChocolatier, and to order your own treats, go to www.ehchocolatier.com. You can also find the bonbons and confections at select shops including Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge and South End Formaggio in Boston, City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, Fastachi in Watertown and Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville.
Andrea Pyenson, who writes about food and travel, is very happy dark chocolate has finally been declared a health food (wasn’t it?). It is an essential part of her diet. Andrea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org