Yaaaasssss, dessert: Go ahead, give in to your sweet tooth

Patisserie Torres' chocolate cake with mango filling and raspberries. Yes, please! Photo: Morgan Salyer Patisserie Torres’ chocolate cake with mango filling and raspberries. Yes, please! Photo: Morgan Salyer

There’s only one right way to eat dessert: at every meal. Start with breakfast—a sticky, gooey donut (okay, fine, you can put bacon on it)—then a sip of a sugary shake, and later, a pillowy pile of tiramisu and a mug of cocoa before bed. In this issue, we’ll show you how to appease your sweet tooth in all manner of ways, from restaurant delicacies to giftables that satisfy any guilty-pleasure craving. What a treat!

Hawt chocolate

It’s no secret that Gearharts Fine Chocolates has long been the grande dame of artisanal chocolates in Charlottesville. But there are some new kids on the block making headway on the local chocolate scene, some focusing on more traditional treats while others are dabbling in cutting-edge cacao/cocoa trends.—Jenny Gardiner

Photo: Sanjay Suchak

Ooh la la

Jennifer Mowad of Cocoa & Spice makes a particularly amazing cup of drinking chocolate: Rich, velvety, and luscious, it transports you to a Parisian café or a piazza in Florence, it’s that good. But her chocolate-making skills reach far beyond that.

Mowad started her business four years ago, after she’d gotten hooked on “playing around with chocolate and peanut butter cups, then bark and truffles.” She decided to enroll in an online chocolate program, then apprenticed at a chocolate shop and coffee roaster in Vancouver, Canada, before launching her home-based business, selling at City Market and vending on the Downtown Mall. She moved into her shop about a year and a half ago.

“I make everything because I like it,” Mowad says, “but I really like coconut and curry clusters. People are always hesitant to try, but once they do it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s really yummy.’”

506 Stewart St., cocoaandspice.com

Mary Ellen Isaacson. Photo: Amy Jackson Smith

The bark is better than the bite

In a way, Chocolatesville’s Mary Ellen Isaacson went in search of chocolate popcorn and came back with a store—or at least the nugget of an idea to open her own shop. Fairly new to town, she tore the area apart in search of the desired treat to no avail, and a business was soon born.

While Chocolatesville can be counted on for more traditional types of chocolates like bark, truffles, and solid molded chocolates, Isaacson likes to experiment, too, with things like sponge candy (“crunchy candy full of air bubbles with a molasses flavor,” Isaacson says) and chocolate-dipped items including strawberry Twizzlers, Swedish fish, orange peels, and apricots.

325 Rivanna Plaza Dr., chocolatesville.com

Monique Boatwright. Photo: Corbett Smithson

Bean there, done that

Monique Boatwright had been working with her good friend, Jonny Nuckols, who’d opened Shark Mountain Coffee in UVA’s iLab a few years back, when he had the idea to start making bean-to-bar chocolate because of its correlation to coffee production. She got hooked.

“This is a movement in the chocolate industry in which the roasting and refining and the process that I’m doing allows for retention of flavors that are really specific to different origins (of cacao beans),” says the chocolatier. “When you taste a small-batch bean-to-bar, you’ll get flavor notes in it like those you’ll see in a coffee shop now—like a coffee that has notes of blueberry.”

She says she’s always trying out new chocolates with her single original chocolate bars, which are made from straight cocoa beans and organic sugar and use no cocoa butter. “We’re working on botanicals with something to offer from a culinary point of view, and refining that into the chocolate.”

Find them at Mudhouse, Lone Light Coffee, Ivy Provisions, Market Street Wine, JM Stock Provisions, and Foods of All Nations.

Play time

Frolic Chocolate’s Logan Byrd became enamored of bean-to-bar chocolate while traveling several years ago and immersed himself on a cacao farm in Costa Rica for two weeks to learn the craft.

Upon his return, he started collecting machinery to create chocolate, and is working on releasing two bars at the beginning of 2019—one from a Guatemalan bean and another from a Belize bean. In the meantime, he’s also gotten into coffee bean roasting as well.

“It’s really fun to see how the roasting process affects the coffee and it also affects the chocolate a lot,” Byrd says. “For roasting you appeal to many senses, but ultimately it’s the final flavor.”

Until now he’s been making just bars, but with a newly acquired tempering machine, he hopes to also make truffles. As he ramps up production over the next several weeks, Byrd expects to produce one 50-pound batch per month in the refurbished outbuilding-turned-chocolatier-haven behind his Belmont home.


So happy together

Three ways to put your coffee where your treat is

By Erika Howsare

Our favorite thing about a coffee shop (other than the joe itself)? The sweet treats offered up alongside that magical elixir. With a universe of cafés as rich as Charlottesville’s, each with its own selection of edible goodies, the possibilities for coffee-treat combos are nearly endless. Here are a few pairings that please our taste buds.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Sicily Rose: Cannoli with espresso

This is a stripped-down experience. Sicily Rose offers a tiny menu—just cannoli, with a small selection of toppings. Ordering a no-frills espresso as accompaniment means you’re taking the whole thing seriously, sort of the way a monk approaches prayer. Behold: The divine manifests in the form of a chocolate shell, layered and delicate, stuffed with dense, subtle ricotta cheese (but only filled right before it’s served, so that the shell won’t get soggy). Playing off these time-honored flavors are candied orange, which calls out to the lemony notes in the filling, and the crunch of pistachios…and, last but not least, dark, oily, smoky, super-rich espresso.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Atlas Coffee: Raspberry triangle with a macchiato

The triangle has it all: texture, color, and a flavor that balances sweet streusel with tart berries. It’s a low wedge of fluted oat-based crust under a minimal topping that sinks into thick, sticky, ruby-colored fruit. On the tongue, the fruit dissolves and spreads, while oats and the occasional raspberry seed build a rustic texture. This is like a granola bar that died and went to heaven, where it acquired a slight sugar crunch. Meanwhile, the macchiato—which means “marked,” as in espresso marked by milk foam—adds its own dimensions of delicious. Weighty, toasty-flavored espresso slides down under a layer of warm, sweet foam.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

The Pie Chest/Lone Light Coffee: Chai vanilla cream pie with a cortado

One might be tempted to order a chai with the chai vanilla cream pie, but what fun would that be? A cortado (espresso with lightly steamed milk) makes for a more complex pairing, pulling in a whole other symphony of flavors to mingle with the pie’s already-beguiling composition—the most important element of which, in our estimation, is the whipped cream on top. Ridiculously rich, firm, and cool, it sits on the tongue, substantial as custard, for a few divine moments before melting away. Underneath, the filling offers the familiar chai spice experience (including just a tiny bit of heat), and the buttery, savory crust, breaking into large flakes, seems somehow warmer in temperature than the rest of the pie. And here comes the cortado (!)—its bite of espresso offset by just enough milky sweetness.

Sweet sippables


Sweet, refreshing horchata might be best on a warm day, but La Flor Michoacana owner Claudia Polania says customers ask for her handmade rice milk right through the winter months. With five simple ingredients—rice, milk, cinnamon, sugar, and water—horchata is a staple in Latin America.—Shea Gibbs

Photo: Corbett Smithson

Peppermint shake

If you think there’s anything better than a milkshake at a lunch counter, you probably haven’t tried the peppermint shakes at Timberlake’s. Built by blending vanilla ice cream, milk, and crushed peppermint candies, the shake is thick, satisfying, and tremendously popular from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Hot chocolate

The folks at MarieBette take hot chocolate so seriously, they devote an entire month to it. Building on a base of frothed European chocolate ganache and whole milk, the uber- bakery comes up with a different flavor of hot cocoa every day in February—think roasted banana, s’mores with bruléed marshmallows, raspberry, or coconut.

Traditional tastes

These treats are out of this world

A good dessert should take you away—away from your troubles, away from your cares, away from your skinny jeans. These three international flavors truly transport.—Shea Gibbs

Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Fried ice cream at Monsoon Siam

The secret ingredient in Monsoon Siam’s deep fried ice cream is all-American: butter bread. They take the classic white loaf, cut off the crusts, wrap a slice around any flavor of ice cream, freeze the ball overnight, and quickly fry till golden. Owner Kit Ashi says her Thai restaurant sells more than 50 fried ice creams, topped with homemade black raspberry sauce and whipped cream, every month and more in the summer.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Gulab jamun at Milan Indian Cuisine

Lots of folks ignore the glossy dough balls swimming in syrup on the Indian buffet. Don’t do it. Gulab jamun is a favorite in Indian households and for good reason—it’s basically a doughnut. Milan makes its version with milk and Bisquick, bathes the deep-fried treat in cardamom-infused syrup, and tops it with coconut or pistachios. “They’re simple, but they take a lot of time,” owner CJ Gohtra says.

Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Baklava at Bashir’s Taverna

Bashir’s Taverna chef/owner Bashir Khelafa worked on his baklava recipe for almost a year and a half before unveiling it to the public, so he’s not gonna tell you what’s in it. “My mix of nuts and what I do to the dough is proprietary,” he says. “The final product has been incredibly successful.” The critical part of the scratch-made confection? “It’s not too sweet.”

Photo: Morgan Salyer

A most misunderstood delicacy: Bizou’s grilled banana bread

Despite the name, Bizou’s most popular dessert isn’t really grilled, and it isn’t quite Bizou’s.

“Truth is, I stole it,” says chef and co-owner Tim Burgess of the restaurant’s beloved banana bread. He lifted the dish—“the single best dessert I’ve ever had,” he says—from a long-ago meal at Dallas’ now-closed Deep Ellum Café, and brought it to Bizou by way of his previous restaurant, Metropolitan.

Each slice represents one-eighth of one of the 10 or more loaves Bizou makes per batch, using a secret recipe that is “denser, drier, and much less sweet” than usual and without any walnuts. And “grilled” is a bit of a misnomer: The restaurant uses a bit of unsalted butter in a small skillet and cooks the slices in it. As the butter browns and sizzles, it creates a crispy, almost brûléed crust on the outside of the bread, while the interior remains moist and soft.—Nathan Alderman

Not-too-decadent desserts

By Erika Howsare

Love sweets, but not the thought of empty calories? Avoiding gluten, or attempting to cut your cholesterol? It’s still possible to enjoy a treat. We sampled a few healthy (or, at least, healthier) desserts from local restaurants, searching for the right combination of virtue and sin.

Photo: Corbett Smithson

Almond pavé cake from Paradox Pastry

Need a dinner idea? We can almost imagine making a meal out of this cake, which comes in a generous slice and contains only a few ingredients—almond flour, butter, sugar, and eggs. Hear that? Eggs! It’s practically an omelet. Given to Paradox owner Jenny Peterson by a French grandmother, the recipe counts as gluten-free even though it carries no whiff of deprivation.

A crust of sliced almonds on the top complements the nutty flavor of the cake’s lovely, subtle body, and contrasts with its moist, squishy texture. Like a good almond butter, which in a way it resembles, it’s just the right happy medium between light and dense. The dark outer crust, which is the color of toast that’s just shy of burned, lends a little complexity. Just think of all the protein you’re giving your body as you nosh this treat.

Photo: Corbett Smithson

Cinnamon roll from Moon Maiden’s Delights

Moon Maiden is “a mindful bakery” whose ingredient lists contain stuff like sprouted pumpkin seeds, hemp, and sprouted cashew. So if, when we say “cinnamon roll,” you’re picturing something like what you can get at a certain national chain often found in airports, put that out of your mind right now. This is more akin to something you’d find at a natural food co-op.

The roll’s swirled form pays homage to its namesake, though it clearly contains a ton less sugar than what you’re used to. Dense like a biscuit, the roll gets sweeter toward the middle as you arrive at the fig-based (crunchy!) filling and vanilla topping sprinkled with lavender flowers. The flowers, by the way, are potent in flavor—and because the cinnamon roll isn’t overpowering you with refined sugar, you’re able to appreciate the more subtle, nectar-like quality of the sweetness they bring. Overall, this creation lives somewhere between a fig newton, an energy bar, and a very virtuous birthday cake.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Lemon olive oil cake from Parallel 38

This slim slice displays a medium-dark brown crust and, inside, a color as light and citrus-like as you’d expect. Take a bite, and your mouth is filled with sweet, rich lemon, offset by the toasty flavor of that just-browned-enough crust. There may be olive oil involved, likely meaning a lower butter content, but this dessert doesn’t come off as a lightweight.

Plus, check out the accompaniments: a mini-scoop of vanilla ice cream, lemon curd, and a substantial piece of dark chocolate with a little spicy kick. The lemon curd glistens and adds a bright bite of tartness to each mouthful of cake. Even more dimension comes from the milk crumbles, just a few of them, bringing a welcome bit of texture to the whole ensemble.

Eat like a kid

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Chocolate Budino

Budino is a traditional Italian custard typically made with milk, sugar, egg yolks, and top-shelf cocoa powder. Lampo breaks with tradition when it tops its version, layering on thin hazelnut brittle, “barely” whipped cream, and extra virgin olive oil. Chef Mitchell Beerens recommends pairing the dessert with “something nutty and sweet like a Vin Santo or Madeira.” You’d do well to listen.

Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

S’mores bread pudding

Housemade marshmallows and chocolate pudding, candied cereal and graham crackers, and deep-fried bread pudding come together to completely reinvent a kids’ camping classic at Oakhart Social. “More than anything, it’s a nod to nostalgia,” says Chef Tristan Wraight.

Buttered popcorn pudding

When former Brasserie Saison chef Tyler Teass wanted to make something sweet for his wife at home, it was always a pudding swirled with fresh popcorn. The dish is now the restaurant’s most popular dessert. Puffed corn is blitzed into butter and heavy cream, layered with crème fraîche and lime segments in simple syrup, and topped with popped sorghum.—Shea Gibbs

Rachel Pennington. Photo: Amy Jackson Smith

Splendid slice

Pie Chest maven Rachel Pennington focuses on flavor

By Erika Howsare

Rachel Pennington makes no bones about how she got into the baking world. “I had no professional baking experience at all,” she says, remembering back to when she applied for a part-time job as a pie baker at The Whiskey Jar. “I dove in headfirst and it worked.” Indeed, she did so well that owner Will Richey offered her a gig as the brains behind a spin-off pie shop just off the mall. That was nearly four years ago, and The Pie Chest now has a second location, where Pennington and her team bake 250 sweet pies a week, plus 850 savory items like hand pies. “It’s been a journey,” she says.

K&F: How did you begin creating the menu at The Pie Chest?

Rachel Pennington: The Whiskey Jar informed me. They make real food, done simply, with a focus on flavor. My aesthetic fit well within that paradigm, because things are supposed to look rustic. Appearance was secondary for me. I’ll never have what Albemarle Baking Company or MarieBette have. My focus is flavor, 100 percent.

Fifteen is the number of pies we have every season at The Pie Chest. You have to have chocolate, fruit, nuts, and citrus. Then you flesh out the menu under those umbrellas. I took a lot of notes at The Whiskey Jar and made a collection of recipes; I gathered eight or nine hundred recipes from cookbooks and made a database. I don’t even look at those lists anymore.

What are the biggest challenges with your business?

When you’re baking at home, it doesn’t matter if juices are running or if a pie bleeds when you cut it. I’ll have a recipe concept and then I have to find techniques and methods to fix a certain element—like getting a strawberry-rhubarb pie to stay tight. Every fruit has a different moisture content and acts differently when baking. Apples thicken just with flour. But for strawberry-rhubarb, I use both cornstarch and granulated tapioca, and it’s three or four steps. It’s a two-day process even before the baking.

Have there been pies you gave up on?

We tried to do a mint julep pie. But the look of it is really unsightly; the filling is brown. So you cover it with whipped cream, and then it looks boring. So then we added candied mint leaves. But I have to be careful not to create a pie with 10 different ridiculous steps. So now if I say, “That’s a mint julep,” everybody knows that stands for “We’re not doing that again.”

Do you use local ingredients?

We use about 80 percent local fruit, like apples from Carter Mountain, and we use eggs from Pamplin Poultry, and honey from Hungry Hill. A lot of what we use comes through the Local Food Hub. Right now it’s Asian pears from Saunders Brothers in Nelson County.

What are you making with those Asian pears?

Honey spice pear pie. I’m proud of that one, because from the ground up, it’s mine. The spices are cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. I make a caramel with those and honey—mostly that’s the sweetener. We mix that with Asian pears and top with a hazelnut crumble.

Red Rocker owner Sue Charney says her products—from the toffee to the Rocking Chair Mix—is more like snack food (okay, sure!). Photo: John Robinson

Sweet snacks

Red Rocker Candy’s fancy fix for the munchies

By Erika Howsare

Red Rocker Candy has its origins in an economic crash and a cross-country move. Back in 2000, Sue Charney got laid off from her job in California, and started to spend more time making candy, a lifelong hobby. “My neighbor owned a carpet cleaning business,” she remembers, “and said, ‘Why don’t you sell me some of that for my customers?’” The following year, her husband also lost his job. The pair pulled up roots and moved to Virginia to start a candy company.

“I’d never run a business before,” she says. “I bought a house at Lake Monticello and had a kitchen built in the basement. I stood there for six years in my basement making candy by myself.” High-end shops like Foods of All Nations and Feast! took notice. Eventually, she was able to move into a commercial space in Troy, hire employees, and even open a factory store.

“My mother taught me to make candy when I was a kid and I understood it,” Charney says. “It’s comfortable to me. Candy-making is a science; it’s not like cooking.” Her first products were toffees and brittles, but over time the company has evolved to focus on pretzel mixes, like the signature Rocking Chair Mix, Charney’s most popular product—a salty/sweet mix of pretzels, almonds, and cereals with a white confection coating. Other mixes take that formula and add delicious twists, like dark chocolate and mini peanut butter cups, or lemoncello almonds and mini chocolate raspberry cups.

“We’re not Gearharts; that’s not what we do,” says Charney. “It’s snack food, really.” When she’s developing a new product, she’ll shop retail for candies and cookies that contain the flavors she’s interested in, then search for wholesale ingredient sources. Employees at the small factory in Troy coat the pretzels, pour chocolate into trays to make barks and brittles, and package it all up for customers as far away as California and Florida.

Locally, you can get Red Rocker treats right there at the factory store—which sells a few things you won’t find anywhere else, and offers tons of free samples—or at Feast!, Foods of All Nations, The Virginia Shoppe, and the Blue Ridge Country Store.

Though Charney’s husband passed away in 2014, she and her team continue to develop new products and welcome customers to their store. “Just by being in the business, I’ve developed a strong way of knowing good flavors,” Charney says. “We try not to do anything trendy. I just try to listen to my gut.”

Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

An unexpected treat

Two fun facts about tiramisu: First, that you can get it daily at Vita Nova on the Downtown Mall (who knew?). And second, roughly translated, tiramisu means “pick me up”: tirare meaning “pull” or “lift,” mi meaning “me,” and su meaning “up.” Is there a better pick-me-up than a heaping spoonful of homemade tiramisu?

They’ve had plenty of years to refine the recipe at Vita Nova, where owner Giovanni Sestito has been making it from scratch since he opened the shop in 1997. Prior to moving to Charlottesville, he had a restaurant in Massachusetts at which he regularly made desserts, so he continued that tradition here, also making such treats as Parisian macarons and cheesecake. Sestito says they tend to make desserts for the winter months, but tiramisu remains on the menu year-round.

“Usually people want something sweet after dinner, and it’s not a heavy dessert, like cheesecake,” which he jokes would be more like tiramigiù, or “pull me down.” “It’s very light, so you seldom get the heaviness with tiramisu.”—Jenny Gardiner

Chef Dean Maupin says the C&O’s sticky toffee pudding “hits all the right notes when you’re eating it.” Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Sticky standards

In a recent (informal) Facebook poll, C-VILLE readers cooed about their favorite local desserts, and a clear favorite emerged: the sticky toffee pudding at C&O. This date-enriched, sinfully sweet sponge cake has origins in a tiny country hotel in Lancashire, England, where the proprietor reportedly learned the recipe from two Canadian Air Force officers stationed nearby during World War II. Wherever it came from, its local devotees mostly just seem glad it’s here in Charlottesville.

Like the original, the C&O’s recipe seems to have passed through many different hands. Erin Maupin, former pastry chef and current handmade clothing entrepreneur, first learned it while working at Blantyre, a luxury resort in Massachusetts, early in her career. She refined the gooey treat during stints at Keswick Hall, and later The Clifton, where she ran the kitchen with her husband, Dean. The recipe’s now a staple at the C&O, which Dean took over as chef/owner in 2013. 

According to Dean Maupin, the much-loved dessert is actually easy to make. “The method is interesting,” he says. “It starts by boiling dates, water, and baking soda together. That mixture is cooled, then added to a butter/sugar creaming, with eggs, flour, and leavening added to it.” The dark, rich result gets dolloped with mascarpone cheese and lavished with warm toffee sauce. “We haven’t changed it much over the years,” says Maupin.—Nathan Alderman

Pastry chef Serge Torres says the perfect dessert menu balances seasonal produce, texture, and temperature. Photo: Tom McGovern

Dessert doctor

How a pro pastry chef writes an after- dinner menu

By Erika Howsare

Serge Torres has given plenty of thought to the question of dessert. Since 2015 he’s worked as Fleurie’s pastry chef, and earlier this year he opened Patisserie Torres, a small shop showcasing his passion for high-end pastries. The French-born Torres still creates Fleurie’s seasonal desserts and oversees the dessert menu there.

Conceptualizing a dessert selection for a place like Fleurie, he says, demands balancing many factors. Seasonal produce is a big one, with inspiration coming from the yearly cycle of available fruits. Spring might see a fraisier appear on the menu (that’s an angel cake layered with strawberries) while fall tends toward toffee pumpkin cake with coconut mousse.

“I play with texture,” says Torres, “and I play with warm and cold”—adding a little ice cream or constructing a parfait. The old favorite at Fleurie? Crème brûlée. Torres says it was there before he arrived and has remained a standard. “People like it, and it’s easy to prepare,” he says.

The menu also regularly features one or two chocolate-based items and a fromage plate—a selection of cheeses. After many years in the business, Torres has a large repertoire on which he draws, from petits-fours to chocolate truffles to hazelnut financiers. Travels inspire him: After visiting the Middle East, he experimented more with spices, pistachios, and carrots.

Lately, though, he says, he’s been keeping to “French flavors with an American twist.” He’s been making chocolate passionfruit domes, coconut dacquoise (a cake layered with meringue), and maple-pecan cheesecake.

His Charlottesville audience, of course, influences what shows up on that final menu diners peruse at the end of a meal at Fleurie. “People love chocolate, apples from Charlottesville, local products,” he says. “I try to make something they can recognize, but also get them out of their comfort zone.”

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