For chocolatier Jessica Spaulding, whose humbly-sized but dynamic Harlem Chocolate Factory recently opened in the eponymous New York neighborhood, the shop is the culmination of a lifelong goal. Her truffles and tarts are decadent and boundary-shattering in a way that tells you that the staff takes their craft seriously.
And when you consider that Spaulding grew up in a strictly no-sugar home, it’s all the more interesting.
Harlem and its world-renowned aesthetic influence everything in her shop, from the old school signage to the items sold. The Sweet Potato Pie truffle, for example, is an adaptation of a dessert made and sold in this area for generations. Her reimagining of this classic pie is ambitious and interesting, but doesn’t at all feel contrived. The way the chocolate combines with the earthy sweetness of the sweet potato is downright life-affirming. That feeling permeates every bit of chocolate in the shop.
I talked to Spaulding about her recipe influences, which country has the best chocolate, and how her surroundings inform her decisions.
Khalid Salaam: You mentioned previously that you grew up in a no-sugar household. Can you elaborate?
Jessica Spaulding: My mom and my dad worked at a health food store, and they were very health conscious. My father loved the health food lifestyle. He was an EMT, and he passed away when I was two years old. My mother held on to all the health food stuff in honor of him. She was very “health conscious.” No refined sugars; she used honey instead. So no snacks, no cookies, no doughnuts, as far as any kind of dessert, maybe you could get a scoop of ice cream.
This was annoying at times, like when I would go to my cousin’s house and they had Kool-Aid. The first time I had it I was like, what is this that you’ve been holding back on me all these years? Or sometimes my aunt would sneak me a slice of cake and I’d eat it real quick, but I am so glad that I was raised that way. It has helped me to learn about food and focus on flavor rather than coating my tongue in sugar.
KS: Chocolate was always the exception to your mother’s rules. Why?
JS: My mother knew the difference between a snack and a treat, and a treat is something you have occasionally. Good chocolate doesn’t have a ridiculous amount of sugar. It doesn’t have to spike your blood sugar. The thing that makes it good is the quality of the milk and the balance of cocoa butter. Not the sugar—she was very stringent about that. Back then and even to this day, my mother is the queen of healthy treats, from next-level fruit salads to anything dipped in chocolate.
KS: Is it fair to ask if you have a favorite kind of chocolate?
JS: You know, chocolate means so much to me, and it’s been a part of my life for so long that I don’t have a favorite. It depends on my mood. Usually, I crave dark chocolate. Other days, I want something milkier, or white chocolate, but it has to be perfectly balanced. I can’t taste the sugar first.
KS: What inspires your recipes?
JS: With the chocolate and cayenne ganache, it was totally trial and error. This involved me blowing out my palate and feeling like I burnt my face off. I was just trying to understand the balance of flavors and the ganache-making process.
When I first started thinking about the company, I thought about my experience of being around people born and raised here. Harlem itself inspires me—telling stories of Harlem and communicating them through my recipes. We’re not bringing anything new here, but we are helping to restore Harlem’s glory. We tell these stories even in the packaging, and we bring in elements of different time periods.
For example, we have a collection of truffles called the Sunday Soul Collection. They’re inspired by classic desserts like the Sweet Potato Pie, Red Velvet Cake, and Banana Pudding. Right now truffles make up that initial line, and soon we’ll expand it. There are so many cultures that interact here and we want to tell those stories, from the Senegalese communities on 116th Street to the residents of Spanish Harlem. It’s an experience being here, and that’s what this company is about.
KS: Where do you source your chocolate?
JS: For flavor, I like to use is South American dark chocolate. My favorite is from Venezuela. For milk chocolate, I love sourcing it from Ghana. My goal is to have a completely African chocolate collection one day. Ghanaian chocolate is earthy and woody; you can taste the environment. Venezuelan chocolate has a fruitiness to it. It’s just delicious.
I often go to trade shows and tastings, trying to find a company that matches us ethically. Of course, it has to taste good, too. Because I’m in control of the entire process, I need to make sure everyone along the line is treated fairly. Things like non-fair trade practices are something I think we can eliminate in our lifetime.
KS: How has the reception been to your business?
JS: It has been crazy. We sold out of our entire case four times already, and we always have to restock the bonbons and the truffles. To restock a full case is crazy because some of our bonbons take three days, to make and there are so many different layers to the process, from letting things sit and set to temperature control.
But really, the reception has been wonderful. We’re going to install a reaction camera. We recently had some guys walk in and they were scoffing at the price. So one guy took two, they all walked out, and 30 seconds later, they turned right back around. He bought a $30 box. We always knew we had good chocolate, so I love seeing other people realize it, too.
Milk Chocolate–Cayenne Ganache
ounces milk chocolate
ounces unsalted butter
teaspoon cayenne (add up to 1/2 tsp. for more spice)