Tucked away past shelves of wine and premium beers is a large picture window into the world of Nancy Biehn, chocolatier and owner of Sweet Gem Confections.
A food artisan at work, she tempers chocolate and infuses flavors into ganache. She then rolls the ganache into shapes to be dipped into melted chocolate. The finished product will be one of the more than 30 varieties of Sweet Gem Confections, signature chocolate truffles.Today, Biehn, 46, from Ann Arbor, was busy making heart-shaped truffles for Valentine’s Day,
“The chocolate holiday,” saidBiehn. It’s her second-busiest time of the year. Christmas is the first.
These hearts are special. She called them “Aztec Hearts” and added cayenne pepper into the ganache that provided a spicy kick and a complex flavor. It had just the perfect amount of heat.
The hearts are seasonal. She only makes them around Valentine’s Day. Biehn figured that she will create a few thousand for the holiday.
When asked if she has had any unique chocolate Valentine’s requests, she laughs and says that she has never made chocolate body paint.
As for chocolate being an aphrodisiac, Biehn sees some truth to the claims.
“It’s the feel-good chemicals (phenethylamines) that are in the obroma cacao that people refer to as an aphrodisiac,” said Biehn. “They’re good for your heart. There are 600 flavor compounds in chocolate. Red wine has about 200. Along with the flavor compounds, chocolate is the most diverse food.”
Working in her kitchen located inside Morgan and York on Packard in Ann Arbor, Biehn creates chocolate treats that thrill the taste buds and enliven the senses. She specializes in chocolate truffles using local, seasonal ingredients.
Ask her how many flavors of truffles she makes and she will say 25-30, but she is not sure. Biehn is like an artist who works with a large pallet of colors only to combine them to make more, but instead of paint, she works in chocolates.
“I keep changing flavors depending on the season,” said Biehn. “In spring, I make a rhubarb and a peach truffle. In summer, I use tropical flavors. Around Thanksgiving, I do pumpkin. And for winter, I do darker things like using red wine and port.”
Biehn even has an eggnog flavor for Christmas.
One of her popular flavors is blueberry. She picks them herself on an organic farm in Grass Lake.
“I picked around 35 pounds last year,” said Biehn. “I freeze them and make a puree and I use Sandhill Crane blueberry wine, which I reduce to intensify the flavor.”
Biehn not only has a picture window into her kitchen, she leaves the door open so customers can visit and talk with her while she does her craft. It is like an artist opening up her studio, or watching a cooking show live.
The open door at Sweet Gem Confections reflects Biehn’s philosophy about food.
“People appreciate knowing where their food is coming from and how it is made,” said Biehn. “I have nothing to hide.”
She explained that when she first started making chocolates, she went around to other shops and asked if she could see their kitchens.
“They all said, ‘no way,’” said Biehn. “Competition like that is so silly. To be so afraid to share what you know…”
Not only can customers see Biehn make chocolates, she teaches them how to do it. She teaches classes in truffle-making about 12 times a year to small groups of four to six.
“I want to share what I know,” said Biehn. “That is why I teach classes.”
Instead of being afraid of the competition like the others who refused to show her their kitchens, Biehn encourages it.
“Make chocolates,” she said. “Please, I would love for you to make chocolates. Start a business if you want. Enjoy it. Enjoy life.”
Biehn views educating people about chocolate and her truffles as part of what she offers.
“It is nice if you are going to spend a good amount of money on really fine chocolate to know what goes into those chocolates and how they are made,” she said.
Sweet Gems Confections even attracts chocolate tourists.
“The Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce brought in 16 food writers to visit last fall,” said Biehn. “And classes come in for field trips, including the Girl Scouts.”
Along with truffles, Biehn also produces chocolate-covered caramel, toffee and turtles, which are a combination of nuts, caramel and chocolate.
So what new truffle does Biehn have in the works? She offers a sneak peak into her latest creation to be out soon.
“It will be a frangelico- (hazelnut liquor) flavored truffle with hazelnuts, which will be formed into a new, wave-shaped mold,” she said.
If that has your mouth watering, too, Sweet Gem Confections are available at Morgan and York, Zingerman’s Next Door, Arbor Farms Market, Sandhill Vineyards and online at sweetgemconfections.com.
Valentine’s Day Week Hours
Monday thru Friday: 9:30 – 2:30
Saturday February 5: 10 – 4
Saturday February 12: 10 – 4
Sunday February 13: OPEN HOUSE from 1 – 4