Baltimore-area chocolatiers create sweetness to savor

Local entrepreneurs turn to old-fashioned, handcrafted techniques to create luxurious confections

  • Ruth Carliner owns the Velvet Chocolatier in Stevenson. Oprah magazine just picked her caramels (front left) as one of her favorite things of 2011.
Ruth Carliner owns the Velvet Chocolatier in Stevenson. Oprah… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
December 20, 2011|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

People who want chocolate a cut above the stuff found near grocery store checkout lines have plenty of big-name national brands to choose from.

But connoisseurs know the only way to get truly fine chocolate is to find a local chocolatier.

In the Baltimore area, there are a number of chocolatiers making confections the old-fashioned way — by hand.

There's the Velvet Chocolatier, a tiny shop riding high after a recent shout-out by O, The Oprah Magazine. There's Cacao Lorenzo, run by a man who prides himself on upholding meticulous European chocolate-making techniques. And there's the maker of Izzy's, who only recently started making Peruvian-style chocolates, but they've already earned a spot in the Whole Foods specialty section.

You won't find these chocolates in the two for $5 rack at the discount store. But you'll also be getting something handmade by people who consider their work an art — a delicate, perishable object of art that's meant to be savored, not saved.

The Velvet Chocolatier

Chocolatier: Ruthie Carliner

Contact: 10403 Stevenson Road, Suite B, Stevenson, 410-365-9883, http://www.thevelvetchocolatier.com

House favorite: The Cashew Chew, toasted cashews mixed with soft vanilla caramel, salt, and dipped in dark chocolate.

In barely two years as a chocolatier, Ruthie Carliner, a former auto sales executive, has achieved what many longtime food-makers only dream of. She's opened a boutique in Stevenson Village, captured a spot on the shelves at Whole Foods and — most notably — scored a mention in this autumn's "favorite things" issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Since the magazine's editors sung the praises of the Velvet Chocolatier's dark chocolate caramel cups, petite confections, oozing with soft caramel that is set off with a touch of sea salt, Carliner has been happily swimming in orders — some from as far away as Israel and China.

"It is insane," says Carliner, a mother of three from Owings Mills. "It is just crazy."

Carliner spent nearly her entire career in the car business, first working for her father's dealership, Penn Pontiac GMC in Dundalk, and then taking it over when he died.

When she sold the business in 2007, she didn't have to work but wanted to.

"My husband," she says, "was like, 'Do something fun — what do you want to do?'"

Play with chocolate, as it turns out.

After taking a few short courses, reading a number of books and, as she puts it, "practicing, practicing, practicing" in her kitchen, she opened The Velvet Chocolatier in May 2010, choosing a spot in Stevenson amid boutiques selling clothing, home goods and gifts.

Entering The Velvet Chocolatier, one doesn't walk into a shop but steps right into Carliner's kitchen, where at any given time there might be a vat of milk chocolate melting or truffles being rolled.

She offers a tightly edited selection of truffles, enrobed chocolates, bark and discs, which are like personal-sized pieces of bark. All of it is kosher and all includes as many American ingredients as possible.

Carliner is proud that not one of her chocolates has an ingredient list of more than a few words.

"How can you be a purist and have all these ingredients?" she says. "I wanted to make it as simple as possible."

That simplicity carries over to The Velvet Chocolatier's packaging. The thick brown paper bags and boxes accented with velvet ribbon exude a feeling of homespun elegance. Each box says "Handcrafted in Baltimore."

Carliner's truffle menu is simple and straightforward, with flavors including cinnamon, honey milk chocolate and coffee. She blends her white, dark and milk chocolate barks with pumpkin seeds, organic blueberries and pistachios.

Yet lately, thanks to Oprah, it's all about the caramel cups. Even actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus sampled them at the recent Baltimore wrap party for her HBO show, "Veep."

Cacao Lorenzo

Chocolatier: Larry McGlinchey

Contact: 1818 Pot Spring Road, No. 20, Lutherville-Timonium, 410-453-9334, http://www.cacaolorenzo.com

House favorite: Basque squares, port-wine soaked figs with milk chocolate butter ganache enrobed in chocolate.

For someone in such a smooth and sweet profession, Larry McGlinchey's composure melts faster than a truffle in July when confronted with misconceptions about his beloved medium.

He scoffs at dark-chocolate snobs, the sort who won't deign to consume chocolate with a cocoa content below a certain percentage.

He simmers when folks wave off white chocolate — when he's all but certain they've tried only the American kind, the stuff he says tastes like "sweet wax."

The term "chocoholic"? He despises it.

It's hard being one of the last of the old-school European-style chocolatiers. McGlinchey painstakingly produces small-craft chocolate in a mass-produced world, carrying on time-honored traditions even as folks fall for the latest foodie trends and dietary news flashes.

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