For Abby Mandel, life is indeed like a box of chocolates. Who could have predicted that a lifelong sweet tooth and a Ph.D. in taste perception science would lead her to becoming Carbondale’s new chocolate artist? Certainly not Mandel herself.
“I had no idea I’d be doing this,” she says. “After my family moved here in 2013, I was still searching for my ‘place’ in the valley. Once I started, though, I loved it. It felt right.”
Mandel has adored making desserts for as long as she can remember. At the age of three she began baking with her grandmother, and at eight she was doing cakes by herself. Her hobby blossomed into a passion, and soon a college-aged Mandel found herself debating whether to attend culinary school. She ultimately chose a more traditional path (that’s where the Ph.D. from Cornell comes in), but nowadays Mandel has found a pursuit that combines her degree and her experience with desserts to doubly sweet effect.
After relocating from Philadelphia, Mandel—like many a transplant before her—found high-altitude baking to be maddening. So instead she swapped flour and pesky leavening agents for chocolate, and in 2018 decided to make holiday gifts of homemade truffles for her neighbors. They were a hit.
“A neighbor asked if I had a business,” she recalls. “I didn’t, but that idea stuck with me. I thought, why not?”
Within weeks, Mandel began testing recipes and experimenting with flavor combinations; by April 2019, she had decided to make a go of it. Her Cocoa Tree Chocolates rolled out a soft launch in September, and by Christmas she was churning out approximately 1,400 truffles per week. That’s a lot of hand-poured, hand-painted chocolatey goodness.
And her unusual flavors—Ginger and Toasted Sesame, Grasshopper, Banana Bread, and Sachertorte, to name a few—how does she come up with them? This is where the art of chocolate truly collides with Mandel’s background in the science of how we experience taste.
“I draw flavor combinations from different backgrounds. Some are more traditional and then there are others that I just like and think sound good—those are more of an experiment,” she says. “Genes determine how we taste things, but health and our sense of smell are factors, too. Smell actually comes into it hugely, because taste plus smell equals flavor.”
Mandel has subjected some (ahem, very lucky) friends and family to the taste-testing of her flavor concoctions to determine which ones stand out.
“Once I made a peppered apricot one, and about half couldn’t taste the pepper and thought it was bad...but the other half liked it,” she says. “Ultimately I didn’t go with that one!”
New flavors that did pass the test include five-spice hazelnut crunch, meyer lemon with pistachio, peach jasmine, and passionfruit coconut. Mandel makes nearly all of her fillings from scratch, uses fine Valrhona and Callebaut chocolate to encapsulate each flavor bomb, and finishes every truffle with vibrant splashes of color by hand.
Consider your Valentine’s Day gifting done. Boxes of Mandel’s creations are available to order online at CocoaTreeCarbondale.com, but also look for them at pop-ups and farmers markets around the valley later this year.