Almond chocolate
Mindy Segal's milk chocolate & coffee panna cotta, with a milk chocolate wort sorbet, almond nougatine and shaved halvah. Photo provided. 

Every other year, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) holds its Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago, often in the middle of July. As those of you who exhibit at or travel to shows know well, being at a show that’s in your home town can be taxing. 

Bernie Pacyniak

Often, there are various familial obligations on the weekend, which can create just a wee bit of stress if you’re trying to be at a show and at home simultaneously, particularly during a Saturday or Sunday. Then there are the post-show events, often resulting in a late commute back home.

But whenever a show is out of town, well, you’re out of town.

Nonetheless, when I received an invite from the Almond Board of California (ABC) to join a select group of editors and writers at a chocolate and wine pairing hosted by Vosges Haut-Chocolat and then a small plates presentation involving desserts and almonds at Chef Mindy Siegal’s Hot Chocolate restaurant, pastry shop and dessert bar, I didn’t hesitate in responding yes.

Being a local, I opted to drive myself to Vosges’ retail shop on Armitage Ave., just west of the ever-so trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood. Being the first to arrive at the shop gave me a chance to chat with Amanda Tommey Terbush, head of R&D at Vosges, and Jeffrey Ketterhagen, the company’s Chicago event coordinator.

The Armitage Ave. shop is the only shop in Chicagoland that has a liquor license, which allows it to conduct wine and chocolate pairings for the public as well as private events, including the ABC Almond and Chocolate tour for the press.

As many of you know, and as chronicled in Candy Industry (July 2012), Katrina Markoff, founder and owner of Vosges Haut-Chocolate, is one of the most creative chocolatiers in the United States. She’s also a successful entrepreneur and astute business woman, as her success with the Vosges brand and now Wild Ophelia attests.

Moreover, Terbush couldn’t contain her excitement about the company’s move into a new manufacturing facility, a refurbished 43,000-sq.-ft. former Whole Foods commissary dubbed the Chocolate Temple.

The  $10-million facility will not only feature more automated processing equipment — I understand a Buhler Bindler depositing and moulding line is being installed as we speak — but plans call for a retail shop, gastropub, café, public tours and an events space. There will even a water taxi stop, making it the most complete chocolate tourist spot in Chicago.

But back to the tasting, which featured one of Markoff’s early truffle creations, Naga, which is a blend of toasted milk, sweet Indian curry, and coconut encased in 41 percent milk chocolate. It was pared with a Moscato wine and an artisan cheese. Sweet! There weren’t any almonds, but this was aimed at getting our juices flowing so to speak.

We then were treated to a Vosges Barcelona bar, which included Fleur de Sel grey sea salt and hickory smoked almonds in 45 percent milk chocolate. To enhance the experience, a wonderful merlot and a triple cream cheese accompanied the Barcelona bar. Chulo!

To top off the Vosges tasting, we were treated to Wild Ophelia’s Salted Chowchilla bar, which  features roasted California almonds from Central California — Chowchilla to be exact — as well as smoked Maine sea salt.

As the back wrapper on the bar explains, “These roasted California almonds of different varietals are grown in a peanut-free and eco-friendly environment. Micro sprinklers sustainably irrigate the farms on which these almonds grow, producing only the strongest and most nutrient-rich nuts high in vitamins and protein. By dry roasting these almond kernels with radiant heat and cooling them in an entirely different machine, the perfect balance of crunch and sweetness is created.”

If you’re looking for a trend in the future, there it is: specific, sustainably friendly information about ingredients used in a product.

As for the pairing, we had a slice of Pecorino cheese and a Goose Island nut brown ale to complement the Salted Chowchilla bar.

I have to add that Vosges’ Armitage store is just a beauty to visit, complete with a beautifully varnished tree table adorned with branch candle holders.

For those looking to do such pairing and/or tasting, I recommend a similar model as that demonstrated at Vosges: focused, manageable and creative. Before I get on to our experience at Segal’s Hot Chocolate, a quick tip on what to look for from Vosges in the coming months: coconut charcoal ash.

As strange as it sounds — and Terbush admitted she even rolled her eyes when Markoff told her to combine the ingredient with chocolate — it works.

And I realize this column, blog, whatever you want to call it is running long, but shoot, think of it as a two-parter, which reminds me about another new Vosges item to look forward to in the fall.

Come October, Vosges will be rolling out 12 different chocolate bar varieties tied to the Hunger Games film sequel. They’ll be needing that Buhler line to pump out the product.

So, again, I beat our crew  headed to Segal’s Hot Chocolate hot spot — they were riding in a trolley and that just takes longer — and luckily found a parking spot in the hipster and trendy Bucktown neighborhood.

I actually grew up in the area more years ago than I’d like to count, but it wasn’t as trendy then; just a haven for Polish immigrants like yours truly.

Let me just say this, Mindy Segal, who’s a 2012 James Beard Award winner for pastry (and numerous other accomplishments) is one heck of a creative pastry chef.

Her menu of “tastings” featured a milk chocolate and coffee panna cotta that included a milk chocolate wort sorbet, almond nougatine and shaved halvah; toasted almond flour and brown butter financier cannolis, featuring caramelized white chocolate banana cream (to die for) toasted almond milk sorbet (freshly squeezed almond milk… just kidding) and frothed hot chocolate; a smoked almond candy bar tartlet featuring Tcho chocolate frozen nougat; and a series of almond and chocolate mignardises, which included salted almond shortbreads; milk stout, almond and toffee brittle; almond hot fudge and smoked sugar rugelach; and an orange blossom water-toasted sliced almonds and apricot preserve kolachy, to name a few.

Siegal told the editors and guests at the table that she spent a week devising the creations, which were all fantastic to say the least.

As for the pairings, some really great wines and ports. So for the milk chocolate tasting, Siegal chose a Niepoort Ruby from Portugal. The cannolis came with a Tirecul Les Pines wine, which I suspected was a Sauterne (it’s the region right next to it). The smoked almond candy bar features a Susana Balbo Late Harvest Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina.

The “Come to Daddy!” pairing, however, had to be the Malmsey Madeira from Portugal. Just heavenly.

So thank you ABC for organizing a tasting event with two local confectionery champions that showcased the versatility and couture of almonds. An unbelievably sweet way to start a food ingredients show.