by Kate Shaffer
If you’ve been paying attention lately - or, really, breathing at all - you will know that the season has changed here in the Northeast. Even if you haven’t been outside, felt the cooling temps, witnessed the shift of light on the horizon, noticed the shorter days, or the maples and oaks aflame in their autumn attire. Even if you don’t live in a four-season region, it’s likely that your favorite coffee shop app is rolling ads for Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Apple Crisp Macchiatos. Every store you walk into seems to be pumping cinnamon spice through the HVAC, and some form of red-orange-yellow polyester shrubbery sprouts from the aisles.
The cynic in me recognizes all of this for what it is: “Autumn” as the latest seasonal concept to be subject to mass commercialization.
But the romantic in me understands WHY it works. Even a die-hard summer lover like myself gets seduced by fall, particularly the fall we have here in northern New England. The leaves, the air, the sweaters, the smell of cider and spices and woodsmoke. It really is all that.
As a maker of special things that taste good, I feel it is part of my job to somehow reflect these particular seasonal shifts in my craft. Not only because they will sell more chocolates, but also because that’s a big part of what makes my job fun and fulfilling and challenging. And I don’t mean just blending pumpkin pie spices with cocoa and ground chocolate - or at least not ONLY that. But distilling the broader concept of fall, the one that is a tiny bit abstract, ethereal, the one that gives us the real “feels,” not just the feels manufactured by marketing agencies.
I am, at my core, a teller of stories. All cooks are, really. Ratatouille, the greatest culinary film of all time, illustrates this truth best. Do you remember the scene? Paris’s cutthroat food critic, Anton Ego, comes to eat at the famed Gusteau’s, where Remy the rat has helped to catapult the bumbling dishwasher Linguini to culinary fame. Remy, via Linguini of course, prepares ratatouille, a seemingly too-pedestrian-for-a-food critic dish of vegetables stewed in tomatoes and herbs. After taking a single bite, the terrifying Ego is instantly transported to his culinary happy place - a visceral childhood memory of his mother cooking ratatouille to comfort little Anton after he’d taken a bad fall from his bicycle.
In this way, food is a sort of magical portal to all the best parts of our life experiences. The act of making, baking, and eating a raspberry pie in the middle of February allows us, if only for a few brief moments, to relive the feeling we had on a too-warm day in July when we made raspberry pie from the berries we picked in the brambles out back. That was a good day. And we can certainly benefit from those warm weather memories in February.
When I develop the recipes for my chocolates, particularly the seasonal ones, this is how I approach it.
So, today, I want to tell you a story about fall.
It is a Sunday afternoon in mid-October. Steve and I are picking apples at a favorite orchard about an hour and a half from the city. Clouds hang low in the sky, a cottony blanket of muted grey that somehow brightens the fiery oranges, yellows, and reds of the maples and oaks that surround the orchard. We spent the previous night in a quiet, nearby campground, and the smell of woodsmoke and pine sap clings to our clothes—an ever-present compliment to the sweet aroma of ripe fruit all around us.
There is a kitchen in the tiny store at the orchard where there is warm cider for drinking, and apple pies to take home to the neighbors, hot chocolate sprinkled with nutmeg in paper cups, and cider doughnuts fresh from the fryer coated in sparkling sugar and cinnamon.
Outside, I pull an apple from a tree, and only then realize that there is a sign that says these are Winesaps and are not yet ready to pick. Well, they look ready to me, and the damage is done…so I take a bite. All around me there are pumpkins and straw bales and children sticky with cider and chocolate. The fruit is crisp and sweet and juicy. That it is also ever so slightly forbidden makes it taste even better, and I munch secretly watching the scene around me, opening all of my senses to inform my experience tasting this apple.
Did I think at that moment that this would be the flavor I would try to capture in a chocolate? No. But the next day at work, as I struggled with a recipe for Cider Caramels that I had been trying to get right for years, that moment with the Winesap, the woodsmoke, the smell of spiced warm cider and creamy hot chocolate, came rushing back. I had a stash of McIntosh rings I had dried the week before, their bright red skins still clinging to the leathery fruit. I emptied them into a mortar, and added a dash cinnamon. I pounded this to a powder, the scent of yesterday’s orchard just beyond the reach of my senses. I added a few pebbly grains of charcoal-colored sea salt that had been smoked with apple wood. I ground it down into the dried apples and cinnamon, and suddenly the ghost of fall materialized right there in my kitchen.
Later that day I sprinkled this powder—dubbed “magic apple dust” by Ryann, an employee—over a batch of buttery cider caramels that had just been coated in a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate. This caramel is the best way I know how to package up our Northeast fall for both the uninitiated and seasoned northern New Englanders. I hope that that when you bite into one, you are transported to a Sunday afternoon in a western Maine orchard, the memory of campfires on your clothing, the taste of perfect fruit on your tongue, and the buzz of bees and birds and laughing children in your ears.