My new best friend
Armin Hack is a certified master pastry chef and, if I could, I would make him my new best friend. In fact, I have decided to officially appoint him my new best friend, whether he agrees to it or not. A native of Dusseldorf, Germany, Hack has operated Frieda's Bakery (now Frieda's Desserts) in Madeira with his wife Melanie since 2004. Hack specializes in chocolate-based, European-style pastries and I recently arranged to sample some of his creations. An hour later, I place a box filled with pastries on my kitchen counter, open it carefully, and almost swoon at the rich chocolate odor that blooms above it. First, I try the Manjari Chambord Feulletine ($4), a long thin bar of dark manjari chocolate made with 70 percent cocoa and chambord laid on a pleasantly crisp base. It is a wonderful mixture of textures, each one satisfying the palette. The Earl Grey Chocolate Tea Tart ($4) is next, and it is subtly sweet and understated; the flourless chocolate torte ($4) is moist, delicious and full of rich rounded flavor; and the Pont Neuf ($5.25), a wonderful, lightly spiced chocolate cake with a delicate hazelnut crisp shell follows them. The Riviera ($5.25) is a dizzying mix of blackberry chocolate mousse, blackberry tea creme brulee, jaconde cake and chocolate cake. It is like a parade of flavors, marching noisily through the mouth. Finally, I try a Peanut Butter Crunch ($4): a square of peanut butter ganache with a peanut butter glaze on a milk chocolate peanut butter crisp base. It is simply the best thing that exists. Anywhere. And my new best friend made it. (Chris Kemp)
Frieda's Desserts, 6927 Miami Ave., Madeira, 513-272-0939.
Chocolate in flight
Marble Hill hand selects chocolates from small artisanal chocolatiers for its chic but friendly shop.
Visiting here is like going to the jewelers, but you get to eat the gems. There are two cases of treasures to chose from -- each one prettier than the one before.
The delicate beauties in the front case are from Anna Shea, the side case is from Norman Love. I picked some of each with the help of Liz, niece of the shop's owner.
Liz's favorite, the Aztec Chili, became my favorite, too -- an intense dark chocolate square flavored with ancho chili and sea salt and flecked with finely chopped roasted pepitas. Like inside-out Skyline -- chocolate with chili instead of the other way around -- but so much better.
Next was the store's best-seller, the Salted Caramel, with a liquid center that was so buttery. There are milk chocolates, like the Gianduja Truffle, which is rolled in hazelnuts. Coffee lovers will adore the Kona, and the Port Wine has a hint of sweet raisin. The pretty Pumpkin Swirl, a white chocolate, was surprisingly complex with maple and nutmeg, and not too sweet.
Marble Hill suggests wine pairings for its chocolates, and its "menu" is coded to help match your selections with sparkling, white, red or dessert wines. The shop also offers on-site tastings, including Friday Night Flights: $15 for three wines with three chocolates, from 5-10 p.m. A sweet happy hour, indeed. (This chocolate binge totaled $11.25. Collections of eight pieces are available for $20.) (Anne Mitchell)
Marble Hill, 1989 Madison Road, O'Bryonville, 513-321-0888.
The Willy Wonka of Bellevue
Jack Schneider of Schneider's Sweet Shop is the real deal -- a true Willy Wonka.
"There actually are people who call me that," he says, laughing. "Especially once they've seen me covered in chocolate."
And that happens often, especially around Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day when he's making candy up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week! Recently, in fact, he made 400 pounds of delicious Opera Creams by hand on his dad's old-fashioned production line. He'll sell through that in a weekend.
"A competitor came by one day to look at some equipment we were selling, and he laughed when he saw how we still make our candy. He bragged that they'd installed a new computerized system that automated his whole process. I asked him, ¨So now nobody in your shop actually knows how to make candy?' "
Jack smiles at the memory.
Over the doorway is a photo of his parents standing at a soda fountain. (The family business started in 1939.) It looks like something out of that Tobey Maguire movie Pleasantville, but it's more than a decoration. I think it's Jack's promise to his dad -- who literally mixed the candy with huge paddles on a marble table -- that the family name would only grace the highest-quality product.
And Schneider's candy easily trumps anything you'll find at a gift shop or a supermarket.
"We have customers who bring our candy home to Germany," he says proudly, and I believe him -- especially those mysteriously light and rich Opera Creams. "They taste so great because our cows eat that delicious Kentucky bluegrass."
Whatever it is, Jack, just keep 'em coming, and in the old-fashioned way. (Michael Schiaparelli)
Schneider's Sweet Shop, 420 Fairfield Ave., Bellevue, 859-431-3545.
Lisa Cooper Holmes has been up to her elbows in chocolate at Haute Chocolate since 1979. The independent shop freestyles most of its goods, which means the products aren't dependent on a chocolate mold and pretty much everything is done by hand. Cooper Holmes proudly states, "We make our own batter and frosting and hand nut, hand chip and hand package."
Haute Chocolate started with three signature items -- truffles, brownies and Bodacious Buckeyes -- but now boasts 40 signatures, among them a Double Chocolate Chip Fudge Brownie (individual size $1.95) and an Espresso Chocolate Chip Brownie (individual size $1.95) that was my personal favorite -- who can argue with coffee and chocolate in the same little package!
Haute also makes "artisanal" Oreos and pretzel turtles. The Sticks and Stones Turtle Pretzel ($6.95) with caramel and a quarter-pound of nuts could easily keep you alive if caught in a snowdrift for a day or two.
"We have a lot of extreme tendencies here at Haute Chocolate," Cooper Holmes says.
Visiting the store is like, well, being a kid in a candy store. Where do you start! From every corner, chocolate, caramel, fruit and coconut cry out to you in the maniacal candy-laced voice, "Pick me! Pick me!" As I skipped through with my little red-wire basket I added a Sticks and Stones Pretzel Turtle alongside my espresso brownie. There was still room for an 8-ounce package of Toasted Coconut Chocolate Clusters ($9.95) -- a wonderful concoction of dark chocolate and crunchy coconut -- and an 8-ounce package of malted milk balls ($4.95) that felt like a pack of miniature golf balls in my hand.
Oh, dear, my basket still wasn't full; I was about to spin into chocolate overdrive. But as Cooper Holmes says, "Here's hoping all of your crises are chocolate!" (Lora Arduser)
Haute Chocolate, 9823 Montgomery Road, Montgomery, 513-793-9999.