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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Ex-journalist finds similar career in chocolate

In both fields, ‘you get the facts right,’ prize winner says

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In chocolate, Robyn Dochterman found a lot of the same satisfaction she used to get from journalism. It gave her another place to be curious.
In chocolate, Robyn Dochterman found a lot of the same satisfaction she used to get from journalism. It gave her another place to be curious. (Photos by Leila Navidi/Minneapolis Star Tribune) Photo Gallery

By the time Robyn Dochterman began assembling her award-winning macadamia nut bonbons, she had already been working on them for days.

The chocolatier had roasted and candied the nuts she’d crushed by hand. She had cooked up a deep, dark caramel made with macadamia blossom honey she found on vacation in Hawaii, and pulverized more nuts into a paste for the filling. She’d painted molds with splashes of blue cocoa butter, and coated their recesses with the thinnest shell of milk chocolate.

And she had already carefully browned the butter for logs of shortbread dough. Between sips of Mountain Dew — cans and bottles placed on various kitchen surfaces — she sliced the dough and slid trays into a small convection oven.

The perfume in the air at St. Croix Chocolate Company’s production kitchen, in a little gray house in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, could make you swoon.

There was still more to do. Fill the chocolate shells with the caramel, crush the cookies into sand and mix with melted caramelized white chocolate and macadamia nut butter, seal the bottoms with more milk chocolate, chill, remove from the molds, and, hopefully, eat.

Judges in Italy were already tasting them. These bonbons, decorated to look like the ocean waves off Hawaii’s Big Island, won a gold medal in the Americas division of the International Chocolate Awards earlier this year. (Dochterman found out by watching a livestream of the awards. “Everyone else in the world apparently uses the French pronunciation for St. Croix. ‘Is anyone here from St. Kwah?’ ‘Oh, I think it’s me!’ “)

Dochterman had just sent a package of the macadamia bonbons off by two-day air to Florence, where they are being evaluated against other winning ganaches, pralines and truffles from Europe and Asia in the World Finals. The results of this prestigious competition, something like the Oscars of craft chocolate, will be announced at the end of this month.

“My staff sometimes think I pick the most complicated things,” Dochterman said. “And they’re not wrong. No part of it is easy.”

But Dochterman doesn’t choose easy. She didn’t choose it when she decided to leave journalism at the height of the recession in 2008. She was 45, and had been at the Star Tribune for more than a decade. She was writing about gardening at the time, and had fallen in love with growing her own food. When she was offered a buyout, she took it.

“There’s so much energy when you want to do something new, and that totally filled my brain,” she said. “And then it was all about discovery.”

Always curious

Dochterman, who grew up in rural Iowa, went to San Francisco to learn how to make sourdough. Then she took a class in artisan cheesemaking. Finally, she went to Chicago, to the French Pastry School, where she had to wear a tall paper toque (“it was ridiculous”). She became consumed by chocolate.

“We worked all day. We skipped dinner. I’m like, ‘Whatever. I don’t care. This is fun.'”

In chocolate, she found a lot of the same satisfaction she got from journalism. It gave her another place to be curious.

“I was stunned when I figured out being a chocolatier is not all that different from being a journalist,” she said. “You respect the science. You get the facts right. You have to understand the truth. And then you can be creative. Exact same structure.”

She opened St. Croix Chocolate Co. in 2010 with her partner, Diedre Pope, who had gone along for the ride at the French Pastry School and “hated it,” Dochterman said. But the former nonprofit administrator was primed to handle the business side of things, and went all in on Dochterman’s passion. “Isn’t that everybody’s dream in the chef world?” Dochterman said. “You do all the fun stuff and somebody else has to make money at it.”

Pope runs the shop just on the other side of the little gray house, where this time of year the lines don’t really end until most of Dochterman’s handiwork needs restocking. (“I learned at 61 I can still do an all-nighter,” Dochterman said.)

Pope has an uncanny ability to remember customers’ faces and past orders.

“It’s miraculous at my age,” Pope said. “But if they come back, I very often can remember, ‘Last time you liked this, why don’t you try this as your adventure chocolate today?’ ”

Pushing customers to become more adventurous is the mission. Dochterman scrunches up her nose when she says people have told her the macadamia nut bonbon, with its crunchy cookie layer and caramel filling, reminds them of a Twix bar.

“I didn’t pattern it off a Twix bar,” she said. “But it connects to something in their memory, and that’s good.”

And Pope bristles when people inevitably ask about the Oompa Loompas in the back — a reference to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

“They’re trying to understand our chocolate,” Pope said. “When we say we make European-style chocolate flavored for an American palate, we also make turtles. We do chocolate-covered pretzels. We have something accessible, and then they taste it and it doesn’t taste like a Hershey bar, then they get curious about other things.” Pope might then steer them to Dochterman’s signatures — the Mamacita truffle, which combines chili pepper and chocolate and looks like a shimmery autumn leaf, or a chocolate-enrobed caramel made with a purée of fresh-picked black raspberries.

“You do what you have to do so they get it — short of sampling, because we can’t afford it,” Pope said, laughing.

Indeed, at $2.50 per truffle, Dochterman can’t afford to make mistakes in the kitchen. And with her bonbons currently being judged in Italy, cost is not all that’s at stake.

This is the first time St. Croix Chocolate Co. has competed at the this level. Dochterman doesn’t enter a competition every year; being deadline-driven (another former journalist’s trait), contests lead to an inevitable rush to the finish line, posing a time challenge during the shop’s busy seasons.

But five years ago, she won her first gold in the Americas division of the International Chocolate Awards, scoring her first invite to the World Finals. She turned down the invitation.

“I was like, ‘What’s that get me?’ Nothing. It gets you a certificate that looks exactly like this other certificate. I don’t think it’s going to have any more meaning for me or my customers.”

She looks back on that decision now with a combination of amusement and horror.

“I’m such an idiot,” she said. “I can’t believe I did that. I didn’t know that I had just made it to the big leagues and I’m like, ‘Nah, I’ll take a shower.’ ”

But Dochterman was driven by the creative process more than the recognition itself. Making it as far as she did? “It was enough for me then,” she said. “But it’s not enough for me now.”

Driven to perfection

Today, she understands what the award is really about. It’s for her dedicated customers, who drive up multiple times a year from as far as Lakeville and Rochester and even Glenwood, Minn. But above all, it’s for the career-changer who went on a journey of self-discovery in middle age and mastered her craft.

“I could put my chocolates up against anyone’s and feel proud. It’s very exciting and very rewarding, having chocolate sent out to people who don’t know me, who don’t know my story,” she said. “They’re halfway across the world, and if they say it’s good, I feel pretty confident we’ve got it going on.”

Multi-tasking, she moved between a stainless-steel counter, where she was slicing slabs of caramels made with reduced apple cider from Maine, and the “green room,” where vats of melted chocolate are mechanically stirred at just the right temperature so that when cooled to a glossy brown, you could almost see your reflection in a chocolate bar.

Using a hair dryer, she warmed the partially assembled macadamia nut bonbons for just a moment, so the bottom layer of milk chocolate would adhere to the filling. Then she slid the mold under a spout of chocolate, and used a drywall trowel to smooth the bottoms. After giving them a few minutes in the cooler, Dochterman popped the finished bonbons out of the mold like cubes from an ice tray.

They were blue-spackled works of art. Toasty, nutty, delicate, with a contrast of textures that gave way from one to the other.

“Two thumbs up,” Dochterman said. “Wash that down with a little Mountain Dew and I’m in business.”

Just don’t say they’re too pretty to eat.

“People always want to say that,” Dochterman said. “And I’m like, we’ll make more, I promise.”

St. Croix Chocolate Co.

Where: 261 Parker St., Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, 651-433-1400, stcroixchocolateco.com.

Fun fact: After hosting Ukrainian refugees — and teaching them how to make chocolate — earlier this year, St. Croix Chocolate Co. was invited to put a truffle assortment into a White House gift bag. The bags were distributed at a September reception that First Lady Jill Biden hosted for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

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