Inside a Vegan Chocolate Laboratory

Food Features Cocoa V Chocolat
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Inside a Vegan Chocolate Laboratory

First, there’s the smell. To step off 9th Avenue into Cocoa V Chocolat is to enter the warm, fragrant embrace of the lover that will never leave you—chocolate bon bons. Cocoa V, which opened in February, is the latest venture from Pamela Elizabeth. Dubbed New York’s “vegan queen” by CBS, Elizabeth is the entrepreneur behind the Blossom du Jour chain and, most recently, Urban Vegan Kitchen. With Cocoa V, she has introduced a line of truffles, bars and bon bons (all made on site in the shop’s tiny back kitchen) that are dairy-free by virtue of some top shelf vegan culinary science techniques.

The morning I visited the shop, chocolatier Quinn Ventura was making Betterfinger sticks. Betterfingers are, as the name suggests, the shop’s take on the Butterfinger. The crunchy, flaky centers are made from peanut butter and a vegetable oil blend. Ventura coats each rod in a layer of tempered dark chocolate and then rolls it in Betterfinger dust. The end result is very similar in texture to its namesake, but less salty and with more of a natural peanut flavor. Altogether, it’s a grownup take on a trick-or-treat stalwart that won’t dessicate your mouth.

Elizabeth opened a predecessor to Cocoa V five years ago, but ended up closing it after two years of operation. When her chocolatier left and she wasn’t able to find another with the same skill set, Elizabeth made a tough call. “Before the reputation of the store went down I thought maybe the best idea would be to close it for now, always with the intention of bringing it back,” she says. Elizabeth wanted to make sure she was providing treats that lived up to their luxury label and price point. Now, with the return of Cocoa V, she says she’s doing just that.

As the reigning vegan monarch of Manhattan, Elizabeth is always aware of what’s missing from the landscape. While urbanite vegans have an ever-expanding array of options for both savories and sweets alike, Elizabeth hadn’t seen any shops offering high-end vegan truffles and bon bons. “Obviously there are vegan bars out there, but it’s different,” she says, “I wanted to create a shop that offers a strong focus on chocolate.”

Betterfinger_CocoaV_MJB.jpg Photo by Molly Jean Bennett

The PB&J bon bon is another standout in Cocoa V’s lineup. Shaped like a tiny geodesic dome, the morsel’s exterior is spattered with lustrous gold and magenta accents. I’d wear one as a brooch if it wasn’t liable to melt all over my clothes. Inside, a gem of tart jelly sits atop a creamy layer of peanut butter. I was especially curious about how the chocolatier had achieved the sheen on the outside.

In researching the ingredients in sprinkles for another Paste article, I learned recently that many shiny chocolate items contain confectioner’s glaze, which often includes a resin secreted by the lac insect. But Elizabeth says such additives aren’t necessary with the proper technique. “It has to do with temperature and how you temper the chocolate,” she says. “You can get that shine without without putting something on the chocolate.” Large commercial manufacturers may rely on glaze when chocolate is melted and then reformed at a temperature that’s too high or low, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The gold and magenta on the PB&J bon bons is achieved by hand painting the inside of a chocolate mold. Then, when chocolate is poured in at the proper temperature, it attaches to the edible paint and forms a high-gloss backdrop.

Cocoa V focuses on dark chocolate, which is already more amenable to dairy-free recipes. According to Elizabeth, it isn’t hard to achieve the right balance of flavor. Texture, however, requires more innovation. Cocoa V uses cashew milk, soy milk and pea protein in place of animal products. “Once you understand vegan ingredients and how they interact with each other, it really comes together” Elizabeth says.

Cocoa V’s current chocolate supplier sweetens its products with organic white sugar. As she expands her product line, Elizabeth is always on the lookout for new ways to blend ingredients. She plans to begin incorporating coconut sugar, both into chocolates and new curiosities like taffy and cotton candy.

vegan chocolate bar new.jpg Photo courtesy of Cocoa V

She’s also talking to a potential supplier about getting a white chocolate. A suitable vegan white chocolate has proved elusive thus far, but Elizabeth hopes to begin developing beautiful ivory bon bons and bars soon. For a vegan shop, sourcing can be an intensive process. Each link in the supply chain must be scrutinized, not only for quality, but for manufacturing processes that might use animal products. Some U.S. sugar producers use bone char—cow bones heated at high temperatures—to filter and bleach cane sugar.

Whether customers seek out Cocoa V because they’re strict vegans, lactose intolerant or just lured off the sidewalk by the treat-bedecked window display, Elizabeth has been pleased with the response so far. It turns out eaters of all stripes can get behind betterfingers and better bon bons.

Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and multimedia producer based in New York City. Her essays, poems, and strongly worded letters have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atlas Obscura, VICE, and elsewhere.