Of all the boxes of chocolate you’ve ever received, were you more impressed with the colorful box or the chocolates inside? Let me put that another way. When you think back on that box of chocolates, do you remember how pretty it was, or do you remember the way the velvety, almost-bitter dark chocolate ganache melted into a puddle on your tongue? The way the silky, darkly sweet caramel dribbled down your thumb after you bit through the thin, snappy chocolate shell? The surprising array of flavors like tangy handmade cream cheese, rich Indonesian cinnamon, smoky Spanish paprika, and berry-bright balsamic?
Think of a normal box of chocolates.
I’m talking the kind that pop up at drug stores a few weeks before Valentine’s. The flavors haven’t changed in decades: some gooey things, some crisp crunchy pieces, then those chocolates with Day-Glo filings that no one seems to want (you can tell by the hole folks make on the bottom to see what flavor is inside). We all know what to expect from those chocolates. Chances are, they’re super sweet and not much else. But whether or not they taste great, they’re sure to look stunning.
The dark secret of the chocolate world is that (usually) the box costs more than the chocolates inside. That means when you pay a premium price for that box of chocolates, mostly what you’re paying for is the box—not the chocolate. People are swayed by the attractive packaging. Most of us assume the chocolate inside will be as good the pretty box they come in. But you can’t judge a book by its cover.
To balance the high cost of the box, the chocolates inside have to be cheap. To make cheap chocolates you use cheap ingredients, starting with low quality cacao. If you’ve ever tasted baking chocolate and been shocked by how terrible it tastes, that’s because it’s made with poor quality cocoa beans. Even though the chocolate tastes terrible, by the time you add plenty of sugar you can turn that bad baking chocolate into a good chocolate cake. (By contrast, if you start with good cocoa beans, even a 100% chocolate bar can taste great.) Most confectioners use the same rule: start with cheap cacao, add plenty of cheap sugar. You end up with something sweet that tastes okay. As an added bonus, all that sugar acts as a preservative, so the chocolates can sit on the shelf in the shop for months on end. And hey, as long as it comes in a pretty box and makes a statement, who cares what it tastes like, right?
Detroit’s hip chocolatier BonBonBon is taking a different path.
Instead of pouring money into glossy, precious traditional packaging, they designed something far cheaper, yet just as stylish: a modular cardboard box they can use to hold two pieces or thirty-five. It’s funky, it’s functional, it’s cool, and most importantly, it lets Alexandra Clark and her crew put their resources into the ingredients and flavors of their “bons.”
That starts with the cacao. Alex uses blends seven different chocolates to get just the flavor and texture she’s looking for in her bons. Each bon starts with a thin chocolate shell (either milk, dark, or white) that looks like a little rectangular cup and holds a myriad of fillings. BonBonBon creates new flavors weekly (at last check, they’ve created over two hundred different bons in their three short years of business).
Last fall, Alex and her team came to Zingerman’s Deli to find inspiration.
We grabbed spices, coffee cakes, preserves, olive oils, vinegars, cheese…we strolled through our land of a thousand flavors and they came up with 1001 ideas using many of our best-selling products. Two weeks later they presented us with their top ideas. Some of them were out there (but still pretty tasty!), like Old Pickle pate de fruit. After tasting through all the options—tough job, I know—we selected five flavors we liked best:
Rugelach – buttery and flaky with Zingerman’s Bakehouse chocolate rugelach mixed into a smooth ganache
Peanut Brittle, Paprika Chips and Salt – nutty, crunchy, spicy, sweet and salty with crumbled Zingerman’s peanut brittle and Zingerman’s Deli potato chips spiced with Spanish paprika
Coffee Cake and Coffee – nuggets of cinnamon-laced Zingerman’s Bakehouse sour cream coffee cake over a bittersweet ganache blended with Zingerman’s Coffee Company high flyer coffee
Everything Bagel – sweet and savory with a fluffy ganache that’s tangy Zingerman’s Creamery hand-ladled cream cheese, topped with all the spices of an everything bagel
Olive Oil and Balsamic – a silky balsamic-infused caramel topped with smooth chocolate infused with Zingerman’s Peranzana olive oil
Olive oil and balsamic in a chocolate, really?
The result isn’t some avant-garde take on a vinaigrette encased in chocolate. When you bite into it, the thin chocolate shell snaps between your teeth and the layer of silky balsamic caramel oozes out from the bottom. The caramel has a bright, berry sweetness to balance out the deep chocolate ganache that’s rich with Peranzana olive oil. It lingers in your mouth for a long, long time after you’re done nibbling.
Getting that balance starts with great ingredients. The caramel gets its fruity brightness from a drizzle of Vecchia Dispensa’s six-year aged balsamic. Unlike many balsamic makers that speed up the process and add tons of wine vinegar and colorants to produce a balsamic that’s sweet without much else going on, the balsamic-making Tintori family at La Vecchia Dispensa outside of Modena, Italy, are quick to emphasize that the key to great balsamic is balance. They use traditional methods, carefully blending balsamics that benefit from years aging in wooden barrels. It takes a lot longer (which means it costs more), but it allows them to produce vinegars that are a harmonious blend bright, tart, fruity, and just sweet enough.
Likewise, the Peranzana extra virgin olive oil brings a rich depth to the chocolate. Unlike nearly every olive oil on the grocery shelves, which are made with a blend of olives from who knows how many farms (and, for that matter, who knows how many countries), Peranzana olive oil is made by Marina Colonna using just Peranzana olives grown and pressed on her estate in Molise, Italy, about 100 miles east of Rome. When an olive oil comes from a single estate, the maker can be a lot more hands-on in every step of the process, from pruning the trees and maintaining the groves, to exactly how and when the olives are picked, to the method used to extract the oil. All that attention detail allows for the creation of more interesting, distinct flavors than you get with a blend of oils from all over the place. Marina’s oil has been our house olive oil at Zingerman’s for more than a decade, and year after year we’re impressed by the balance of pleasantly bitter green flavors with a mildly peppery finish.
Of course, Alex didn’t have to come to all the way to Ann Arbor to visit Zingerman’s to get balsamic vinegar or olive oil. She could have stayed in Hamtramck, Detroit, where she and her crew craft all of the bons, and gotten oil and balsamic at a nearby grocery. It would have been a lot more convenient, and almost certainly a lot cheaper. But the flavor wouldn’t be the same. The Peranzana oil brings a subtle, deep richness that balances out the sharp, fruity notes of La Vecchia Dispensa’s balsamic. Encased in a chocolate shell, those bold flavors stick with you for a long, long time.
For Valentine’s Day, we’re offering a ten-piece collection of chocolates.
In addition to the five Zingerman’s-inspired flavors, the collection includes five of BonBonBon’s Valentine bons. Each is unique, featuring sometimes surprising flavor combinations that are a far cry from your average box of chocolates, like cherry confiture and poppy seeds, or preserved lemon and black currant. In every case, Alex and her team have sourced their ingredients as carefully as they did with the oil and balsamic. The result is a collection of intriguing, bold flavors that are more memorable than the prettiest box on the market.