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Kitchen Careers: Marisa Baxter, Truffle Maker

Marisa Baxter of Truffles in Paradise

Kitchen Careers is a regular feature that goes behind-the-scenes with chefs, bloggers, critics and others in the food industry to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to cook, or eat, for a living.

By Allison Gray, PBS Food

Marisa Baxter is a law school graduate who specialized in international law. However, after the birth of her son in 2007 she decided to follow her dream and start a chocolate business called Truffles in Paradise. Based in Longmont, Colorado, they do not use any preservatives in their products, and use local, sustainable, organic ingredients wherever possible. Their ganaches are made with real cream and real fruit puree; they do not use any artificial flavors.

How did you go from Law School in California to truffle maker in Colorado?

I have always been a huge foodie and the kitchen is my favorite place to be. I did cooking competitions in high school, which gave me my first taste of success. Then, through the years, I began to make toffee and truffles for friends at Christmas and as time went on, I got more and more requests for truffles. All throughout university and law school I was always cooking, particularly around finals. It was my way to destress, and all my roommates and neighbors loved it!

I loved law school and focused on international human rights. I was fortunate to do an internship in Vietnam and Singapore, which was amazing. My intention had always been to move to Washington D.C. and become involved in the international human rights law community. However, about a month before I was preparing to leave, I met my husband and my life did a 90-degree turn. I have never regretted a second. I had a few health issues, so took time off work, and then started a family. When my son was 16 months old, I decided that I wanted to follow my food passion and start my own chocolate business. Truffles in Paradise was born. I have a background in science, so I studied the chemistry of chocolate — how to manipulate it, and then how to convert my recipes to commercial recipes with a shelf life of more than three days. I also discovered airbrushing and the use of colored cocoa butters, and it became even more fun! I am constantly learning new techniques. Three years ago, we moved to Colorado for my husband’s work and we are so happy here. Having moved from the Bay Area, with a very strong chocolate community, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a vibrant community here in Colorado.

Truffles in Paradise

Who are your culinary icons?

The first person I ever watched in the kitchen was my mom. She owned Swensen’s Ice Cream Store in Tahoe City, CA and I remember what a treat it was to help her make the ice cream late at night in the store, and better yet, to eat it fresh out of the machine! She instilled in me the importance of using amazing ingredients — fresh cream, high quality chocolate, nothing artificial. I learned all of my foundations of cooking from her.

I remember watching Jacques Pepin cook with his daughter Claudine and I loved to see what they would create. I got to briefly meet Mr. Pepin while exhibiting at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic last year and I must admit, I was a little starstruck!

And of course, what foodie hasn’t been inspired by Julia Child? I often hear her voice when I am measuring out the liquors for my confections, then add a little extra.

What sets your truffles apart from other truffle businesses?

Every piece that I make has a deeply personal story and thus a reason for being created. I don’t let the commercial aspect of owning a business detract from the value of using certain ingredients. For example, I use a very high quality sparkling wine in my Bubbly confection — J Cuvee 20 from the Russian River Valley. J has been with me on the most momentous occasions in my life. My parents bought me my first bottle for my 21st birthday. I received a bottle when I got into law school; I drank several bottles after graduating from law school; my husband used it to woo me on my 30th birthday (clearly it worked); and most importantly, it was what my husband and I celebrated with at our wedding. There is a lot of love from my heart in every piece that I make.

I am also known for my use of bright colors and hand painted details on my confections. I love color and people often comment that my confections look like jewels. I think the fact that my father is an opal miner in Australia and Brazil probably has something to do with my love of all things shiny and sparkly. Plus, I’m a girly girl!

Truffles in Paradise Marisa Baxter

Marisa's Aurora Borealis truffle is a creamy white chocolate blended with lingonberry with an anise flavor of the aquavit ganache.

Of all the chocolate you have created, what is the most unusual one that ended up tasting surprisingly good?

I decided to make a confection to honor my father, who is from Narvik, Norway. The confection is called Aurora Borealis, and I tried very hard to recreate the northern lights in the piece because when I traveled to Norway with my family, I was always awestruck by their shimmering beauty (see attached picture). I knew I wanted to use lingonberries because it is a flavor I associate with happy memories of my summers spent in Norway with my Bestemor (grandmother). My brother and I would pick lingonberries and she would make the most amazing jams that we would mix with fresh cream and spoon on top of freshly made Krumkake. I knew it needed a complimentary flavor and I wanted to stay true to the flavors of Norway and of my memories there. I decided to create a ganache made with Linie Aquavit, a Norwegian liqueur made with caraway. I was very specific about the aquavit, and I called over 20 stores before finding it. This particular aquavit is what I drank in Norway, and it gets its name from crossing the equator on its journey to Australia and back. I was born in Sydney, so this has even more personal significance to me. I was not sure how my customers in the U.S. would receive this unique flavor combination, but it is now frequently requested.

Which three PBS personalities would you invite to dinner?

It would be amazing to hear the stories of Julia Child. I don’t think it would matter what she said, I would likely hang on her every word. And with her at the table, I know we would need a fabulous supply of wine.

Jose Andres, but only if he promised to cook! I am in awe of how creative he is; it truly blows my mind. One day I’d love to experience a meal at Minibar.

Curious George, as he is one of my son’s favorites. He would certainly add an air of mischief, so we’d have to keep an eye on him. But if I recall correctly, he worked in a chocolate factory once, so he may come in handy.

As a world traveler, which country have you found makes the best chocolate?

My first memory of being in awe of confections was when I was studying for six months in Paris as an undergrad. I was lucky to be there at Easter and the chocolate shops were filled with such gorgeous creations. Huge chocolate eggs filled with small hand crafted eggs and bunnies or marzipan treats. The windows were explosions of pink, yellow and blue tulle and I would just stand outside admiring it all. The flavors were amazing to me and really instilled in me a passion for chocolate.

Last year I tried Guittard’s Kokoleka Hawaiian 55%, a single origins line from Waialua Estates and was immediately a fan. There was a rich fruitiness to it, with strong overtones of sweet raisins, with a slight acidity. As with all Guittard products, it was silky smooth and delicious. It had been in the back of my mind and I knew I needed to incorporate it somehow into my line. Last month, I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to visit Waialua Estates on the North Shore of Oahu and tour the cacao fields. What an experience! I am in the process right now of developing a single origins Hawaiian line, but am waiting for the new harvest, as availability is very limited.

While I have tried both confections and chocolate from all over the world, I think my personal favorite chocolate is the new Hawaiian chocolate from Waialua Estates in collaboration with Guittard. It has such an interesting and unique flavor profile unlike any other I’ve had anywhere else in the world. Most cacao is grown at much farther southern latitudes, so there must be something about the Waialua valley micro climate that instills such yummy goodness into their very unique product.

Chocolate has long been a common wedding favor. How have you seen brides being more unique with their edible favors?

Brides today are definitely looking to make their weddings more unique and personal. They are willing to take a few more risks rather than doing what is the norm. I fully encourage my brides and grooms to get creative, to make it special and about them.

With this in mind, we crafted a set of wedding favor boxes that allow the bride and groom to express their personalities, and allow their guests to take home something meaningful. The bride and groom first get to choose what confections they would like to offer their guests, in colors customized for their event. If there is a flavor particularly important to the couple, I create a custom flavor, as I have done in the past. The favor box itself is meant to be a memento of the event and we personalize the boxes with stories from the bride and groom to their guests. Occasionally, a bride and groom desire to write something to each other that neither sees before the wedding. I love when I see ALL of the favors taken home after a wedding because it is very meaningful to be asked to participate in such an important day in someone’s life.

Truffles in Paradise

How do you typically come up with flavor ideas and eventually pinpoint the perfect recipe?

As long as my eyes and mind are open, I find inspiration wherever I look. While traveling, I am always on the lookout for unique flavor profiles or combinations. For example, the Tahitian Night confection is a result of our travels to Le Taha’a in Tahiti for our honeymoon. Le Taha’a is also known as the Vanilla Island. We brought back Tahitian vanilla beans from the plantation we visited and those were used to make the first Tahitian Night. I continue to use true Tahitian vanilla beans, even though they are much more expensive and difficult to get. The memories and flavors associated with them are unmatched. Perhaps this is why it’s one of our most popular confections… and my husband’s personal favorite.

Getting the perfect recipe can be a lengthy process. My first truffle, the Red Velvet truffle, took me three years to get perfect. Sometimes I debut a flavor at a chocolate show to gauge people’s reactions. I listen to what they say to their friends once they’ve stepped away from the booth, because most often they won’t tell you to your face that they don’t like it. I’ve learned a lot from that and will go back to the kitchen and tweak it a little until I feel it’s just right.

Truffles in Paradise

Most people think making chocolate is all fun, but it’s probably quite demanding. What’s the hardest part of the chocolatier business?

It is a fantastic job to have and I look forward to getting into the kitchen and getting creative. However, it is very strenuous work and tough on my body. In order to juggle being a wife and mother of a 5-year-old, I tend to do longer days, which means 10 to 12 hours straight in the kitchen. I don’t use any machinery other than my tempering machines, so I’m in the kitchen banging away at the molds to get the air bubbles out and to get thin shells. I share the commercial kitchen with several other companies and always find myself apologizing for all of the racket that I am making. It can be quite a work out!

Being around chocolate all the time must be tempting. How do you and your family avoid excessive dental bills?

Haha, a question I get asked quite often! Honestly, by the time I’ve made the ganache, tasting it as I go to make sure it’s just right, I’m already choclotated out for the day. That’s why I have the Official Taste Tester — my 5-year-old old son, who will tell anybody who will listen that his favorites are Heart of Gold and Red Velvet. One of my favorite things is to come home exhausted from a long day at the kitchen and have my son say, “You know, Mommy… the Official Taste Tester needs to actually try the chocolate,” as he holds out his little hands and eyes the ugly duckling pieces that I have brought home. Can’t argue with that logic, can you? I fold every time. We have a very good dentist too, though, that is about all the sugar he gets.

What advice would you give to aspiring chocolatiers?

While everyone thinks that chocolate business is a lot of fun — and it is — it is also very hard work. My advice? Get to know about the chemistry of chocolate; try all different kinds of chocolate; find what you like and enjoy — do not depend upon what others tell you is “good.” Be selective and don’t compromise on quality. Be passionate and love what you do, the chocolate knows… trust me. She can be quite temperamental if you are not in a good mood.

Business wise, if possible, own everything yourself, even if it takes a little longer. It alleviates the daily stress of being forced into the kitchen to make ends meet, rather than being in the kitchen because you want to be. Watch out for good marketing opportunities, such as partnering with others, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. One thing I have learned is that if you don’t ask for something you want, you already have “no” as an answer. I never in a million years thought I would be chosen for the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, but I applied anyway thinking I had nothing to lose. What an incredible surprise and honor to be chosen for the second year in a row.

I met a young lady who contacted me last year after she read an article about my business in the local paper. She expressed to me that she really wants to go into the food industry, but a lot of people dissuade her because it’s tough and it’s hard to make a living. My response to her was quite simple — life is far too short to not do what you love. If you are passionate enough about something, you will find the way through. Follow your heart.

Is there a person in the food industry or a type of “Kitchen Careers” that you would like to know more about? Add your suggestions in the comment section!