Do you want to dip a truffle yourself?" Berkeley chocolate-maker Lisa Lerner asks me. Following her directions, I dip a sterilized hand into a hotel pan of molten chocolate and slowly swirl it back and forth. My hand makes thick trails on the silken surface of the chocolate, which feels like a creamy mud bath but smells much better. With my other hand I pick a chilled ganache ball off a large tray and drop it into the pan. Quickly, I have to fold the chocolate over the top with my chocolate-drenched hand, pick up the ball and shake the excess chocolate off -- it falls back to the surface of the pan in thick ropes -- and swing the dipped truffle onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. My lone masterpiece looks like a lump compared to the polished globes surrounding it.
"Not bad for a first try," Lerner says graciously. (Her workers can dip four or five sixty-truffle trays in an hour.) She returns the pan of warm chocolate to the oven, where it keeps warm and melted until the next production day, while I scrub the chocolate coating off my hands. No loss -- a box of samples awaits me in the other room.
Truffles are a deceptively simple confection. Whipped cream and flavorings such as liqueurs and fruit purees are folded into melted chocolate. Once this mixture has cooled, it can be formed into spheres and chilled solid. The chilled balls are then dipped in melted chocolate or cocoa and decorated. That's it. The success of truffles depends entirely on two things: exacting technique and top-notch ingredients.
Lerner uses a custom blend of chocolates for all her truffles: "a mix of American, French, and Belgian chocolates." That's all she'll tell me. In fact, there are a lot of things I'm not allowed to see -- the entire production process, for instance. Apparently chocolate-making is a serious business, and, Old-World style, she doesn't want the press publishing her secrets.
I'm allowed into Lerner's offices on an off-day. The offices and adjoining production kitchen are located on the second floor of the old Heinz Building on San Pablo Avenue. Lerner, a slim blond woman dressed in artisan's blacks, has a pastry chef's temperament: soft-spoken and precise. She started her career in the late '70s at Berkeley's renowned Cocolat bakery, where she worked her way up to head baker before heading off to Switzerland for a year to intern in a bakery and chocolate shop.
She moved into the current space more than twenty years ago, when she was in her mid-twenties. "The owners showed me the ladies' locker room and the janitor's closet, and I said, 'I'll take it.' They told me to come back with my financial statement, and I didn't know what exactly they wanted, so I brought a box of truffles. They gave me $25,000 on the spot to make improvements, and I signed a twenty-year lease."
The production room looks like any pastry kitchen, filled with tables, baking racks, refrigerators, and bins. An air conditioner keeps the temperature at a constant 70 degrees. Sitting along one wall is a forty-foot-long enrober -- "an I Love Lucy kind of machine," says Lerner -- for making her Villette line of chocolate-coated tuile cookies.
It's summer, and production only happens three times a week, alternating between the "quiet days," when the truffles are made in small batches entirely by hand, and "loud days," when the enrober is turned on. During the summer Lerner employs a core group of workers. Winter is busier: The staff swells to twelve, and production increases to seven days a week. "I'm here the whole time," she says. "Sometimes my days begin at 7:00 in the morning and go until 1:00 a.m.
"If you're a normal chocolate-maker who makes something with a normal shelf life, you don't have to work so often," she sighs. "This is the dumb, delicious way." The fresh cream content in Lerner's truffles ("it causes a fantastic flavor release") is so high that they're extremely perishable. Stored at refrigerator temperature, they last up to three weeks. However, most commercial candy counters can't carry the truffles, because their candy refrigerators are set too high at 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lerner only sells her wares wholesale. She makes truffles, Villettes, and other chocolate confections for chefs and caterers, as well as a select number of retail stores across the United States. "Our best-selling flavor is plain dark chocolate. From time to time, I come out with some new flavors, but I'm actually more concerned with keeping quality consistent. The core flavors stay -- dark chocolate, grand marnier, espresso, and raspberry -- but I sometimes develop new flavors to amuse myself or to fulfill a specific request."
Working without a business partner, Lerner now concentrates mainly on the administrative and sales side of the business. "If there's a downside, it's that I'm two steps away from my customers. I don't get to see their reaction to my chocolates. The best part of my job is seeing strangers' eyes light up when I say I own a chocolate company. I love that. Even the word 'chocolate' is this magical thing for people."
You can find Lisa Lerner truffles for sale at the Pasta Shop and at Peaberry's Coffee and Tea Counter in the Rockridge Market Hall on College Avenue in Oakland.
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