- Joey Smith
- The Best Chocolate in Town is all about the truffles
For some, just the word alone is enough to make their heart race, eyes dilate and mouth water — all sure signs of love. Since the era of the Aztecs, delicious chocolate has been tied to the ideas of passion and love. It’s sinful. It’s irresistible.
And yet for me — well — it’s fine.
But I’m a food writer, and so it is my job to continually attempt to further my palate and knowledge of all forms of food. And so, with Valentine’s Day — a time for love and a time for chocolate — approaching ever so quickly I decided there is no better time than now to break out of my comfort zone and try to find my own love for chocolate.
And that’s how I ended up here, in the production facility of popular Indy chocolate shop The Best Chocolate in Town. Owner and operator Elizabeth Garber recently moved production out of the Mass Ave storefront and to this location near the Circle City Industrial Complex. With a large-scale spot for her and her workers to craft the over 40 styles of truffles they are known for, Elizabeth is looking forward to what could possibly be the busiest year they’ve ever had — which is wild considering that Elizabeth and six other women push out about 100,000 hand-mixed -rolled -dipped -decorated and -packaged truffles a year.
- Joey Smith
- The whole team at The Best Chocolate in Town production facility
As Elizabeth gives me the grand tour, the team is already busting out trays and trays of beautiful truffles. Despite my indifference to the flavor of chocolate, I have always loved the way it looks, especially the intricate little accents chocolatiers add to turn each piece into edible art.
Elizabeth’s space is still coming along, waiting for the fire department to give the okay on a few more details. But all other aspects are ready to go.
We pass by two women, Ildelisa Arteaga and Kristine Morris, rolling the cold ganache between their palms into perfectly uniform pallino-sized balls. The action reminds me of playing with Play-Doh as a child, except they won’t be smashing these flat on a kitchen table. A faint shimmer glimmers off their purple nitrile gloves from the oils in the ganache as their fingers nimbly fix any differences in size or shape before the balls are placed on a metal baking sheet lined with wax paper.
I’m struck by the precision of their motions. It definitely takes an eye for exactness — there is no perceptible difference between any of the 50 or so they have rolled on their sheets.
When Elizabeth asks if I want to roll, I respond like a stoned person that just got pulled over: “I’ll do whatever you say I should do.” But, before I start rolling away, she decides I should see how the ganache itself is made.
One of the women I watched roll ganache is a sweet and enthusiastic retired R.N. named Kristine — she goes by Kris. She comes over to teach me the recipe for the ganache.
While she is bringing out the ingredients and getting me a mixing bowls she tells me that after retiring she wanted something to keep her busy. She knew she loved cooking and chocolate, and she’s now been here for seven years.
We start the ganache by melting down a ton of chocolate chips. Are you thinking we’d use some specialty equipment or a hot water bath? Nope: we pop them in the microwave for short increments with thorough bouts of stirring between.
Once it’s melted — Kris can tell better than I can — we pull out an electric hand mixer and start adding in cream cheese.
Blending still-cold cream cheese isn’t an easy task, especially for a weakling like me whose only hand and wrist strengthening exercises involve video gaming and using an incredibly sharp chef’s knife.
Every time I think my po’ little wist is going to get a break, Kris says something along the lines of “We need to keep it going.”
She explains that the cream cheese has to be completely mixed in or we risk hard chunks remaining in the ganache, and that would ruin the batch. At least I have Kris’ kind conversation and The Beatles’ White Album to keep me company.
We’re about halfway done with “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” when we finish up. I look down at the nonperishable ingredients on our workspace, spotting a bottle of Jameson and wondering if chocolate and whiskey is a thing. While I’m contemplating a drink, Kris explains that we now put the ganache in a fridge and let it chill until there is a need for this particular style of truffle.
The ganache on its own is surprisingly delicious for the simplicity of it. But then again, I’m a firm believer that things taste better when you’ve prepared them yourself since you can almost taste the hard work. Mmm, elbow grease.
- Joey Smith
- It's bet to leave the ganache rolling to the professionals.
“Ready to roll?”
This is what I’ll say: rolling is much easier than blending, almost zen-like, really. You scrape up some of the now hard ganache and once you think you have enough you shape it carefully between your palms into a globe.
While Elizabeth and I work our way through the cookies and cream bucket, we chat about the state of the food industry and major the differences in how the chocolate, beer, wine and food industries work, especially here in Indianapolis.
According to Elizabeth, much like in food and beer, many of the trends start on the coast and work their way in. She was an early adapter of the sea salt craze. Now sea salt is on everything, including my absolute favorite thing The Best Chocolate in Town offers, the milk chocolate sea salt caramels.
This year, she says, Indian spices will be big. They’re already represented in The Best Chocolate in Town’s coconut curry truffle. Now this is a trend I can get behind: the more savory or spicy the chocolate, the happier my taste buds.
I feel like I’m getting the hang of our task after about my tenth or so truffle rolled. And then I realize for every one I do — rolling and then pinching it off because I started out with too much ganache and then having to add some back because I overcorrected — Elizabeth is making at least two and sometimes three.
After we have a solid 50 on the tray, we move to the next step in the process. Time to add a dark chocolate coat to these cookie and cream truffles.
Easier said than done. We stand alongside a waist-high vat of melted dark chocolate. The chocolate comes from a third-generation, family-owned chocolate maker out of California named Guittard. (Before now, I had assumed that The Best Chocolate in Town made their own chocolate. Now knowing that they were, until a month ago, working purely out of their store on Mass Ave, that would have been an impossibility.) Elizabeth gives me a rundown of just how much goes into making chocolate, from bean to bar, and it sounds like a beast of a task. Not making their own chocolate gives the shop a chance to focus on making their truffles.
Inside the vat, a stainless steel bowl turns continually clockwise, a divider keeping the chocolate in only one half of the bowl at all times. Elizabeth explains that there is a mechanism below the bowl, similar to a hair dryer, that keeps the bowl a steady temperature to keep the chocolate nice and smooth.
Robyn Pierceall, an employee of more than a decade, shows me the ways of chocolate dipping. She plucks up one of the little balls Elizabeth and I have just finished rolling, the cookies and cream ganache looking for all the world like a Killdeer egg but perfectly round, and tosses it in the chocolate. It lands with a small plop, floating on the top and being pulled to the left by the small current created by the spinning bowl. Watching this is like getting a bird’s-eye view of Augustus Gloop rolling through the chocolate river. “The great big greedy nincompoop!”
Robyn dips the tips of her pointer and middle fingers to roll it through the chocolate, making sure all of the ganache is covered before scooping it out with her two fingers. When she lifts it into the air the warm chocolate runs off her fingers in a waterfall back down into the bowl below as she lowers her fingers onto the metal divider and scrapes the remainder off the back of her purple gloves — Willy Wonka wore purple gloves, too, I think. Then, almost robotically, she flips the little dark marble that is left resting gently between her fingers onto a fresh sheet of white wax paper and then with her pointer finger she does this sort of swoop — a backwards C to be precise — which leaves a perfect little decorative topper.
- Joey Smith
- Elizabeth Garber demonstrates the proper way to dip a truffle in chocolate.
All of this takes approximately ten seconds.
Robyn does this about five more times before she asks if I’m ready to jump in.
“Sure,” I say confidently. It looks really easy, right?
That easy confidence turns to ash after my first attempt. Somehow I get all four of my fingers covered in chocolate, I also get too much chocolate on the truffle which leads to a huge blob of chocolate underneath the truffle (it looks more like the chocolate covered cherries we get my grandma every Christmas), and my swoop, instead of a backwards C, is closer to a stream of tears running down the truffle.
“It’s harder than it looks.” Robyn and Elizabeth astutely point out. I couldn’t agree more, but I’m not deterred. I’m going to make one of these suckers look pretty. I wipe the excess chocolate off and dive back in, being careful to only use the two fingers to pull my little Augustus out of the chocolate. When I set it down, there isn’t as much gloop on the wax. In fact, it looks closer to a ball instead of 3-D Blinky, Pinky, Inky or Clyde — but the swoop, while more swoopy than my first attempt, is not quite right.
Third time proves to be the charm — is what I would say if this was a work of fiction and not a recounting of my day bumbling through a real-life chocolate shop. It turns out fifth time is the actual charm. And, once I had accomplished what I came here to do, I step away before I could mess it up again. (I also want to lick the chocolate off of my gloves, but I don’t after Robyn says it will just taste like gloves. I’m pretty sure nitrile-flavored chocolate won’t be the key to converting me into a chocolate lover.)
Elizabeth tells me I was actually better than a lot of people who’ve dipped truffles in the past. The Best Chocolate In Town used to actually let people dip their own truffles before they realized it’s not the easiest thing in the world. Now, much like me, they keep that work in the hands of professionals like Robyn.
With over 18 years of running this business Elizabeth has a pretty firm grasp about what works and doesn’t work in her shop, and in this industry. The Best Chocolate in Town started out as a side project in college to make money on the side.
“The mocha truffle was my first truffle and only truffle at the time,” she tells me. “I was making the caramels and using a different turtle recipe at the time. Gosh, I probably had 10 different items at the time.”
Her first production spot was in Edinburgh, Ind. She had planned on opening it in Columbus, but the rent was too high at the time — $400 a month, she says with a laugh. She couldn’t afford it at the time, and the rent in Edinburgh was more reasonable and so she started there.
- Joey Smith
- Trying my hardest to pick out the right truffles to taste.
She eventually moved the operation to Franklin, and a few years later up to her spot on Mass Ave. At that time, there wasn’t much on the north end of the now-incredibly popular street. Elizabeth speaks fondly of those slow days at the beginning, and about how the neighborhood grew up around her and the city embraced her business.
While the city loves it, a big portion of her business actually comes from businesses doing large batch orders and online orders. That conversation leads us to the packaging department, where Ashley Hayhurst and Amanda Isselhart are busy packing up an order of 100 boxes of assorted truffles for a local jewelry store. This is a type of work where I would fail miserably. Ashley and Amanda are very precise in their work with tissue paper and ribbons and labels — and anyone who’s received a gift from me can attest to the fact that tissue paper and I don’t get along very well.
Now that I’ve made my way through the entire chocolate factory I make my exit through the great glass elevator and back out into the streets of Indy’s Northeastside. A quick drive over to Mass Ave and it’s time to get a taste of the fruits of my labor — or, actually, seven women’s labor. Has my newfound appreciation for the work grown my affinity for actual, you know, chocolate?
- Joey Smith
- Amelia Morris prepping the port wine and fig ganache.
(I choose the last one because I had seen Amelia Morris, one of the workers I hadn’t worked with personally, making the ganache and it looked wild. The consistency is much runnier than what Elizabeth and I had rolled, so rather than being dipped in chocolate, the shells are made in plastic molds and the ganache is squeezed inside. I had to feel the difference of the center for myself.)
I also get two milk chocolate sea salt caramels, because I’ve gotta stick with my go-tos.
As I plop down at a little table in the corner and pop open my bag of labored-over goodies, I must admit, I’ve got a smile on my face.
Am I converted? Am I in love?
Well, I don’t think tastebuds work that way.
But, I undoubtedly have a higher sense of appreciation for these tasty little morsels. And when I come back in to get some chocolate for Valentine’s Day — which I need to do sooner rather than later — I’ll be getting myself another of those port wine and figs to go along with my caramels.
- Joey Smith