A behind-the-scenes look at a Half Moon Bay chocolate shop.
This weekend, last-minute romantics will line up outside of SWEET55’s tiny Half Moon Bay storefront to purchase colorful heart-shaped chocolates filled with smooth mocha ganache and solid chocolate lollipops covered in Cupid’s arrows. A small glass window into the kitchen provides a peek at shining steel German machinery and chief chocolate officer Ursula Schnyder’s award-winning team.
Schnyder’s path to becoming a chocolatier included a wide range of jobs. She opened a preschool in Switzerland and covered the rise of Californian cuisine as a journalist. Inspired by her time writing about restaurant kitchens, Schnyder underwent culinary training in both the United States and Switzerland before converting a cottage in her Palo Alto backyard into a professional kitchen. SWEET55 was born in 2013 and opened its first retail location in Half Moon Bay in 2016 when Schnyder found an affordable location in Shoreline Station (known for housing Dad’s Luncheonette) that could hold her equipment in a cool, coastal climate ideal for working with chocolate.
Schnyder’s detailed process begins with chocolate callets, wafers made for melting, purchased from a small supplier in Switzerland. They source ingredients from throughout the cacao belt, a band around the equator with the humid and rainy climates ideal for cacao cultivation. The shop’s signature chocolate is Bolivia 68%, which harnesses wild cacao harvested by Indigenous peoples in small quantities. A two-time Good Food Awards winner, SWEET55 works with vendors who pay above-average prices to cacao suppliers (exploitative practices remain common in the industry).
These callets are fed into SWEET55’s “Rolls-Royce,” an automatic tempering and enrobing machine that provides a constant flow of liquid chocolate that can fill molds or envelop ganache fillings. Fans of baking shows will be familiar with chocolate’s finicky nature: It must be heated and cooled precisely to ensure a proper snap and sheen. “Chocolate is very technical. It’s not an art,” Schnyder says. The Rolls-Royce keeps chocolate in temper and can even recalibrate itself whenever the temperature in the surrounding room changes.
Forming a heart-shaped chocolate shell decorated with gold leaf and bright silver sprinkles, Schnyder fills a mold with the machine’s stream of chocolate. Then, she empties it out and leaves a thin base layer. If the chocolate sets for too long before it is poured out, the shell will be too thick and crack.
Despite all of the kitchen’s equipment, confectionery requires plenty of skill. “It’s not something you just get immediately, the feeling for the materials, and all these different technologies,” Schnyder says. Temperature control is essential to creating beautiful chocolate, and SWEET55 uses a converted wine fridge for setting the chocolate shell’s initial layers and another cooler set of refrigerators for a final setting.
Many of SWEET55’s Valentine’s offerings are filled with ganache, rich mixtures of cream and chocolate. Filled chocolates can be made in two ways. The first method uses the molds, where a bottom layer of set chocolate is piped full of ganache and enrobed again. Alternatively, ganache is spread onto trays, cut into strips, and then passed under the flow of tempered chocolate.
The ganaches are made in another machine displaying the merits of German engineering, “Stephan.” Stephan’s chamber is equipped with a vacuum that removes oxygen from the ganache, which results in a smoother emulsion, a denser product, and improved mouthfeel. According to Schnyder, chocolates need to execute a few basic elements with precision. “A perfect dessert for me is really the mouthfeel, the look, and the flavor … is it crunchy, is it creamy, is it soft?” she says.
While many of Schnyder’s chocolates receive a final layer of decoration, like a logo imprinted with a transfer sheet or Jackson Pollock-like patterns applied through airbrushing, she considers her style restrained and straightforward. Referring to her shop’s tagline, she explains, “‘Enhancing the essence of chocolate’ (expresses) exactly how I feel about my work … the center is the chocolate.”
In May, SWEET55 will expand with a storefront in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village. This larger retail space will provide a showcase for pastries, cakes, and baked goods, most of which are only available by special order due to the limited space at the Half Moon Bay location.
Schnyder expects production to double, and possibly triple or quadruple once the Palo Alto storefront opens. SWEET55 underwent a renovation last November to prepare and built an entire “chocolate room” where ganache will mature and set.
For now though, Schnyder looks forward to welcoming customers shopping during the Valentine’s Day weekend. She says she enjoys selling a small box of three chocolates tied up with a ribbon printed with hearts as much as a large box of 25 sweets. “It doesn’t matter how big of a gift someone buys if it comes from the heart.”