Calling Marilyn Mueller just a candy maker is like calling Michelangelo someone who dabbled at drawing. She likes to think of herself as a "chocolate artist" and her confections as sculpture.
Ms. Mueller, of Riva, has created such masterpieces as a chocolate bird's nest filled with fresh berries and an edible centerpiece of leaves and twigs and spun sugar lilies. Her specialty is truffles served in a be-ribboned box made entirely of chocolate -- including the bow.
You don't have to be a denizen of the Walters Art Gallery to appreciate Ms. Mueller's edible objets d'art -- you just have to love chocolate. And this is no Hershey bar.
In 1981, Ms. Mueller left her job in the federal government and went back to school to study cooking. Today, she has found sweet success creating customized chocolates.
She gravitated toward studying sweets, perhaps because she grew up with a grandmother who was constantly trying to win the Pillsbury bake-off with cherry pie.
"I don't think I could ever eat it again. She tried for a long time. That's all we did . . . eat cherry pie," Ms. Mueller said.
She gave up cherry pie, but stuck with desserts.
She studied baking with Roland Meisner, the White House pastry chef, before launching her own business. Criollo Chocolates (named for a special type of cocoa bean) is known for turning ordinary parts of nature -- flowers, fruits and vegetables -- into edible masterpieces.
Ms. Mueller is also an amateur sculptor who has always loved watching something emerge from a formless ball of clay. She sees her work now as a combination of two passions.
"[Chocolate] is something that has to be dealt with very carefully. Sometimes we tend to be in a rush. This is not something that can be done in a hurry," she says.
She can spend up to one hour making a candy artichoke for a centerpiece. She coats each leaf in melted chocolate, then painstakingly puts together the parts, leaf by leaf, to re-create the vegetable.
Ms. Mueller likes to take her creative cues from nature and from chldren's books. One of her most popular items is a trio of rodents with white chocolate eyes. She calls them "Three Kind Mice." The children's classic "The Velveteen Rabbit" has inspired her latest treat: the "Chocola-teen Rabbit." And an ordinary dinner table can turn into a pond-like fantasyland when strewn with lily pads and "chogs," Ms. Mueller's whimsical chocolate frogs.
Her confections have turned up everywhere from President Bush's inaugural luncheon (chocolate elephants) to embassy dinners and weddings. Her latest accolade came from the doyenne of entertaining, Martha Stewart, who featured Ms. Mueller's creations on the cover of Living, her bimonthly magazine.
Ms. Mueller cites her biggest chocolate challenge as creating a 3-foot tall replica of the Republic National Bank in New York -- on a 95-degree day.
Her creations are a far cry from a standard chocolate bar. She uses only the highest-quality chocolate (French Valrhona is her favorite) and all her pieces are done by hand.
"If you like quality chocolate, that's what we are. It's a combination of the theme, the idea and the high-grade [ingredients]. We're not into mass production," Ms. Mueller says.
Ms. Mueller's hoping to have her own retail store some day. For now she and her two part-time employees rely on caterers and word-of-mouth to keep her orders for business and individual clients filled. Her prices range from $7.50 for a set of three "chogs" to $200 for an elaborate centerpiece. She needs at least one week notice for special orders.
Makes between 30-50 truffles.
1 1/2 pounds semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
8 ounces heavy whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon grated orange rind
Place 1 pound of the chopped chocolate in a medium-sized mixing bowl and set aside. Line a cookie sheet with wax paper and set aside. Bring heavy whipping cream and orange rind to a boil (make sure not to burn). Take off heat and pour over chocolate. Stir until chocolate pieces are melted. When the mixture is the consistency of paste, put it in the refrigerator until it hardens (5 minutes or so). Take a melon baller and scoop truffle balls onto cookie sheet.
For the truffle coating, melt half the remaining chocolate in a double boiler while stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining chocolate until it is glossy and smooth. Using a fork, dip each truffle into the melted chocolate and put on the wax paper. Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes, until truffles set.