Praliné Dream: Oregon couple keeps candy tradition alive
After the holidays, Dan and Elizabeth Donoghue were making between four and eight trays of pralinés a day, two to three times a week, but production is ramping up again as Valentine’s Day approaches.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Surrounded by kettles of melting chocolate and delectable aromas that could make even Willy Wonka swoon, Dan and Elizabeth Donoghue are building a dream. The new owners of The Chocolate Caper at 105 S. Main St. in Oregon have taken up the Swiss praliné-making trade in a well-established business they’ve owned for less than six months.
Elizabeth works mostly in the kitchen, while Dan mans the counter, oversees the business and website, and helps in the kitchen whenever necessary.
Six days a week, the couple is immersed in making Swiss pralinés (pronounced pray li NAYS). “Before chocolate was in Europe, candied nuts were popular,” Dan explains. “When chocolate came, they mixed nuts with chocolate and called them pralinés.” They make other treats in-house as well, including salted caramels and chocolate-dipped toffee, caramels, and apricots, but it’s the pralinés that keep people coming back. “I don’t know anyone anywhere else that makes them,” he says.
Since 1983, The Chocolate Caper has specialized in the handmade sweets that combine almonds, hazelnuts, or peanut butter with pure dark, white, or milk chocolate. These are not to be confused with the Southern praline (PRAY leen), an entirely different confection that’s often associated with New Orleans and is made with sugar, cream, and pecans. In contrast, no sugar is added to Swiss pralinés. The chocolate does the talking.
To start the process, Dan uses a mallet to break a 10-pound brick of milk chocolate into chunks that he places into a spinning tempering kettle. As the chocolate melts, the kettle warms it to 89 degrees for processing. Elizabeth scoops a large amount of the melted chocolate into a mixing bowl, where it is combined with coconut oil and then either almond butter, hazelnut butter, or peanut butter, depending on the flavor of the praliné being made. The mixture is divided evenly by weight into two wax-lined baking trays. One batch creates two trays, and each tray makes 80 pralinés.
She works quickly to ensure the chocolate does not cool. She and an assistant spread the chocolate batter into the trays and then smack the pans on the table several times to break up any air bubbles that might have formed. The pans are refrigerated for several minutes before another layer of pure melted chocolate (no butter or oil) is poured onto the cooler layer and smoothed with a special dowel.
Filling pastry bags with more pure chocolate, the women quickly and skillfully squeeze ribbons of chocolate piping onto the batch in patterns designed to distinguish one batch from another. Almond pralinés have angled piping, hazelnut pralinés have horizontal striping, almond-toffee has top-down stripes, and a crisscross pattern represents peanut butter. The pans are placed in a freezer for 90 seconds before the batch is scored with a rolling-pin-type device and then hand-cut into individual pieces with a specially designed knife.
The entire process for one batch (two trays) takes about 40 minutes. How does the staff keep from eating the profits? “We don’t,” laughs Elizabeth.
Dan, 34, and Elizabeth, 36, parents of four children, never intended to get into the candy-making business, but things “just fell into place.”
He worked at Epic for several years before striking out on his own as an IT consultant, and then life threw him a curve. He got sick for two years, which stopped him in his tracks and sent the couple’s personal finances into a tailspin.
At the same time, Elizabeth, a talented, self-taught food artist with a knack for baking and decorating cookies and cakes, was developing a fan base among family and friends. As more and more requests rolled in, she and Dan decided to start a bakery business and began calling food establishments hoping to find someone willing to share commercial kitchen space.
That’s when they met Claude Marendaz, a Swiss chocolatier, and his wife, Ellen, The Chocolate Caper’s founders. The Marendazes were actually thinking of selling their business to a former employee, but that arrangement fell through unexpectedly. Although the Donoghues had no previous experience with chocolates, the two couples hit it off instantly. The Donoghues agreed to buy the business, and the Marendazes agreed to teach them their craft.