My mother and father met at a health food store, and after his passing, she kept his commitment to health, meaning no snacks or sweets—except for chocolate. We share a chocolate addiction. At home in New York City, we rarely ate “American” food like burgers—our meals were herb salads, spaghetti squash instead of real spaghetti, and roasted everything, but with Ferrero Rocher for dessert. She’s a fanatic about quality—she reads labels to make sure the chocolate contains real cocoa butter, and consequently I’ve been reading ingredients lists my whole life. If she found a drugstore candy bar in the house, she’d throw it away.
Starting at a precocious age eight, I began to get a glimpse of an opportunity: I could be a chocolatier, and I told my mom that I wanted to be Willy Wonka. She could deny my requests for treats but not my dreams, and she allowed me to turn her kitchen into a candy factory. I was only permitted to use the stove if Mom was around—she does construction work and was a first responder at Ground Zero during the national tragedy of 9/11.
I took books out of the library about making candy and watched Saturday morning cooking shows (I learned how to temper chocolate from Jacques Torres). My birthday presents were kitchen tools—often pricey, but Mom is a master budgeter and always figured out how to get what I needed. Every year we'd attend an international convention called the Salon du Chocolat and try samples from around the world, experiencing how different cultures influenced the products. I still remember tasting a truffle rolled in green tea powder from a Japanese company—an unusual flavor for my ten-year-old palette, but it opened up vistas of possibilities.
When I was in high school, Mom saved enough money to send me on a trip to Paris with my French class. I carried home two chocolate cakes and truffles, which we ate in the car on the way back from the airport. By the time I was in college, I got the audacious idea that I couldn’t find any chocolates equal to what I was creating and decided to start my own company. A fund that had been set up to help families of 9/11 first responders allowed me to buy books about packaging, materials, and supplies, but I quickly ran out of money. I took the failure hard, deciding that I wasn't fit to be a business person, and worked as an aide in an after-school program.
Three years ago, now with two children of my own, I found myself sleeping on an air mattress in my mother's living room, battling my landlord about damage to my apartment. Jobless and dejected, I applied for public assistance, miserably filling out the 20-page application, only to be told that I didn't qualify. As any program on “Animal Planet” would confirm, this would be the time when there aren't many options for the mother and her cubs. All resources that they’ve relied on have failed them, and in order to survive, they must adapt. I wanted to ensure that I had a path to financial freedom and that my children would never again face poverty. I formulated a plan to fight my landlord in court and secured a job, but something unfulfilled lingered in me.
While at the library, I saw a sign for a business plan competition. Business plan? Market research? A way to test an idea before actually starting it? These were new concepts. I had exactly $0 to my name, and would have to work out every kink on paper, as there was no margin of error. I enrolled in business workshops. One of the classes assigned each of us the task of purchasing our domain if we believed in what we were building. I stayed up all night. Within two weeks I received an inquiry from someone wanting to buy gifts for her office, and willing to spend $250. I had no way of filling the order, and I still mourn that $250. But it showed me that people were looking for chocolates in Harlem.
I got a loan from a non-profit group that does micro-financing, used it to make a pitch presentation at a business “incubator,” and won the grand prize from the New York Start-Up Business Plan Competition. On my last birthday, my mom said, “Let’s start your business,” and found the space for my shop. Now I’m a few short months away from sharing my passion with the world—that’s if my chocoholic mom doesn’t eat all the inventory. Of course, I will sell my chocolate ganache—the first thing I ever made for her, and still her favorite. It’s best eaten straight from the jar.
Jessica Spaulding is the owner and head chocolatier of the Harlem Chocolate Factory in New York City.
Spiced Chocolate Ganache
6 oz. milk chocolate
4 oz. heavy cream
1 T. butter
1/8 t. salt
1/8-1/4 t. cayenne pepper (depending on desired heat)
Heat milk chocolate in double boiler until all larger chunks are melted.
(Alternatively, heat in microwave at 30-second intervals, checking and stirring every 15 seconds after the first blast.)
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, bring cream and butter to a light simmer. Remove from heat immediately. Do not scald the cream.
Add salt and cayenne pepper to cream and whisk.
Add spiced cream to melted chocolate in three parts, thoroughly incorporating. Mix until shiny and smooth.
Allow to cool, and use as a glaze, filling, or spreading.