***For All Things Wyoming, Sign-Up For Our Daily Newsletter***
By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Good weather last weekend meant something different to Ryan Step, one of Wyoming’s chocolatiers than perhaps most people’s take.
For him it wasn’t just a nice day. It meant that produce trucks could make their way to the Cowboy State carrying something he really needs for Valentine’s Day — fresh and beautiful strawberries, just in time for what is typically the biggest single sales day of the year for Donnell’s Candies, located in Casper.
Those beautiful red strawberries are now sporting pretty, little chocolate tuxedoes and heart-shaped sprinkles, and are ready to present to someone special.
Donnell was even able to pick up a fresh batch of new strawberries for Valentine’s Day itself, to keep the magic going a little while longer. While most people purchase their chocolate-dipped strawberries by Valentine’s Day itself, a few will trickle in after the holiday as well after seeing how good others’ strawberries look.
“I got lucky,” he said. “Sam’s Club just got a nice shipment in, so I was able to get quite a bit.”
Donnell’s Candies is one of several independent candy makers in the Cowboy State who have been amassing an assortment of chocolate delights for what is one of chocolate’s biggest single days of the year.
A Chocolate River
More than 40 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are sold each year for Valentine’s Day, according to Candystore.com, which has been tracking bulk candy sales across the United States for more than a decade.
Sixty-nine percent of people also prefer chocolate to flowers for Valentine’s Day. And, while conversation hearts, little candies with a Valentine’s Day message written on them, have recently caught up to chocolate’s popularity, chocolate still maintains status as the classic Valentine’s Day gift.
Wyoming’s chocolatiers are up to the task. From one corner of the Cowboy State to the next, they have assembled all kinds of chocolates, in every shape, size and flavor.
Chocolate-covered strawberries are big for Donnell’s candies but caramel-pecan clusters dipped in chocolate are very popular at Cowtown Candy in Cody. Hand-dipped truffles, made fresh daily, are the most popular for Meeteetse Chocolatier. Those just scratch the surface of what’s available for Valentine’s Day.
Fun But Busy Day
“Valentine’s Day is fun all day,” Meeteetse Chocolatier owner Tim Kellogg told Cowboy State Daily. “But it is kind of all at once.”
Kellogg offers eight different ganache-filled, hand-dipped truffles for his Valentine collection. The flavors range from Champagne and pinot noir to passion fruit. Those are in addition to the 45 to 50 different kinds of chocolates he already keeps on hand at his Meeteetse store.
While it’s a big rush to get ready for the big day, it’s actually something he’s preparing to do all year round. He grows about 10 different herbs during the summer, which he dries for winter use, and he keeps a beehive out back for locally sourced honey.
He also sources local products for his candies as much as possible. That includes Wyoming Whiskey out of Kirby, for example, and Heritage Grains out of Powell.
“Chocolates are made by hand by me every day,” he said. “I just try to do everything as fresh and clean as possible.”
While Christmas, being longer, is a bigger overall season for most candy stores, Valentine’s Day is also a big sales day. That works well with Kellogg’s freshness standards.
“It’s a lot of last-minute shopping, which works well for my business because my chocolates are cleaner,” he said. “They don’t have the additives, preservatives, stabilizers. So, they have a very short shelf life.”
Chocolate’s Magic Is Chemistry
Bite into a piece of chocolate and it’s like a small miracle happening in the mouth. There’s that crisp, clean “snap” followed by the signature creaminess and then the taste of warm chocolate spreading outward.
Getting to that moment, though, is a chemistry problem that refuses to be rushed, no matter how much a chocolatier might need to rush around for a holiday that’s one to two days of selling, tops.
“The process of chocolate is, you know, juggling multiple things at one time,” Kenny Lee with Cowtown Candy told Cowboy State Daily. “Because your time is taken up waiting for something else to cool, and you just can’t stand there and look at it. It’s a constant dance in the kitchen, warming something up, getting it to the right temperature.”
That’s true whether the purpose is dipping a creamy ganache center or pouring the chocolate into a mold.
Before the chocolate can be used for professional candy making, it must be properly tempered, to reach the right balance. Chocolate is melted slowly to a particular temperature, determined by how much cacao is in the chocolate. Then it is slightly lowered. Get that wrong, and cocoa butter will seep out of the chocolate, making it crumbly and unappealing in texture.
That doesn’t mean the chocolate is in any way harmful, Kellogg said. It’s not spoiled. But it’s not going to have the right taste and texture when it’s eaten.
The chocolatier will have to start all over again.
Life Lessons in Chocolate
“It’s taught me patience,” Kellogg said. “You know you kind of have to play by (chocolate’s) rules. You really can’t get around that. You can’t rush the tempering process, otherwise it’s just a horrendous waste of time, and you’ll have to start over.”
For that reason, Kellogg waits to make all of his chocolates after his store is closed. Lee’s wife, who makes all the chocolates for Cowtown Candy, also hates to be interrupted in the kitchen.
“Timing is everything,” Lee said. “And using your time wisely. There are certain times where you have some time to wait while things are cooking, but that doesn’t mean you are standing around. You usually always have something to get ready for the next batch.”
At Donnell’s Candies, they have figured out a process to keep chocolate at specified temperatures, so that it is simply on hand, ready to be used. Keeping that going is an art form, a bit like juggling.
“We’ve probably been doing this for 67 years,” Stepp said. “Human nature is unpredictable,” but chocolate isn’t, he added, and “we’ve made a science of it, for what you can.”
***For All Things Wyoming, Sign-Up For Our Daily Newsletter***