When Carbondale resident Abby Mandel was a child, her mother refused to indulge her insatiable sweet tooth by buying sugary treats, so Mandel learned to make them herself—candy thermometer, fancy piping, and all. After college, she wanted to attend culinary school; her pragmatic father, a professor, convinced her otherwise. “Culinary school would have been the scary choice,” says Mandel, who instead earned a PhD in taste perception from Cornell’s division of nutritional science.
Now—parental advice aside—Mandel just launched a new venture, Cocoa Tree Chocolates, which synthesizes her academic immersion and her love of sweets into bite-size delicacies. Exquisitely handcrafted with Belgian and French chocolate and gorgeously hand-painted, each truffle provides a multifaceted taste experience.
“I focus on balancing textures and tastes so every bite is a bit different—with the exception of dark-chocolate orange, because it’s already perfect,” says Mandel, who hand delivers her chocolates throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and ships elsewhere in Colorado.
Indeed, she draws on her knowledge of how we taste to develop unique, complex flavors such as tea and cookies or mango coconut curry. In the ginger and toasted sesame truffle, for example, crystallized ginger triggers the mouth’s trigeminal nerves; more populous than regular taste sensors, they register spicy and bitter flavors more intensely (and help us avoid eating potentially deadly foods). Since 80 percent of taste derives from smell, Mandel melds the ginger’s kick with a particularly aromatic toasted-sesame ganache. The fatty, fragrant, slightly salty, sweet, and spicy blend is a tongue twister for the brain that’s also immensely satisfying.
Mandel sources ingredients from her own garden for truffles like the Grasshopper, which uses fresh mint, or peach hojicha, which fuses smoked Japanese green tea and peaches from Mandel’s backyard tree. And she makes her own marzipan, walnut for the banana bread truffle and almond for the Sachertorte truffle; the latter, which also includes raspberry, re-creates the classic Viennese dessert cake.
While Mandel’s degree may be “safe,” her truffles are not—and those daring flavors make her chocolates more than just melt in your mouth.