Aldo’s Chocolate Easter Bunny Raffle

Written By: Ellen  Schnepel

I became seriously interested in chocolate 15 years ago when I competed in an Easter bunny raffle at Aldo’s Too, a biscotteria in Greenport on the East End of Long Island. I had just returned from a trip to the French Antilles and found two phone messages announcing that I had won the contest and should pick up my bunny. On the day I took the Sunrise Bus to the North Fork, it was oppressively hot for early May. When I arrived at Aldo’s, the 95-degree temperature, along with the extreme heat from roasting coffee beans in his bright red machine, had conspired against me. There wrapped in cellophane with a colorful bow were the remains of an imploded bunny.

As I inspected the damages, Aldo said, “I’ll make you another.”

“Don’t go to such trouble for me. I just want the chocolate for baking.”

“You mean you don’t want the bunny?” he asked, surprised that I wasn’t interested in the hollow, milk-chocolate masterpiece that he’d fashioned by melting, pouring, and setting chocolate in a large mold, then decorating it with jelly beans.

“Come with me.” Aldo motioned to the back kitchen where the biscotti production was underway. With curly white locks and penetrating blue eyes, he was the spitting image of Harpo Marx, but Aldo talked, at least when he was in a good mood. When the clouds of melancholy set in, gloom cut the air like a hot knife through butter, and customers feared his irascibility.

Under the marble kitchen counter were stacked five-kilo blocks of dark chocolate, 67% cocoa content. The cream-colored packages were decorated with the dark-brown logo of the Belgian manufacturer Callebaut in French, German, and English. This high quality chocolate is used by professional chocolatiers and pȃtissiers.

“All you need to do is take a hammer and strike off the amount of chocolate you need.” He demonstrated the technique. “Never use a knife or you’ll cut yourself. The chocolate’s too thick. Believe me.”

Aldo was short with explanations but long with criticism. His character had been shaped in Sicily, his birthplace, and hardened with years living in Evian, France. This explained why he spoke English with an Italian-French accent, but his Mediterranean willfulness jinxed many of his business endeavors. Why else would he rent a shop on Front Street when he owned a building a block away with a waterview where his successful restaurant and Italian ice business had been and now lay empty? Later, when he opened a sushi restaurant, the partnership with two Japanese sushi experts soon went sour.

With a crippled French wife and a teenage son with Down syndrome, Aldo was a North Fork institution, too good to let fail. Many in town helped him financially, but with his stubborn nature and bad luck, he fell deeper into debt. His plain and chocolate-covered biscotti, sold locally and at Dean & Deluca’s, Whole Foods, and other specialty shops in New York City, became his salvation. Dipping biscotti in Aldo’s freshly brewed coffee or his unsurpassed hot chocolate was divine pleasure, well worth the long wait in line.

Two years later I was again awarded the chocolate Easter bunny but amidst mysterious circumstances. Aldo must have felt badly that the first bunny had broken, so when I purchased $20 worth of culinary items in his shop to qualify for the raffle, he made me fill out an entry form on a different piece of paper.

Early Easter morning I was awakened by a phone call. It was Aldo. “There’s a rabbit in your back yard!” Sure enough, a 22-pound, three-foot high chocolate bunny with long ears, basket on his back, and multi-colored jelly beans at his feet was outside my door. Several squirrels were eyeing it curiously, intrigued no doubt by its fragrant odor. They liked the smell of cocoa hulls which I used as mulch in my garden, and every year they buried nuts for winter under the chocolate-scented earth.

Over time I dissected the bunny, starting with the ears, then the basket, working my way down limb by limb. One Christmas my sister presented me with a calendar, “Divine Decadence: Indulgent Chocolate Recipes from the Ghirardelli Kitchens.” Glossy photos illustrated a different recipe each month — sinful chocolate truffles, marbled cheesecake bars, chocolate hazelnut-pear tart, chocolate-almond layered cheesecake, devil’s food cake with mocha butter cream frosting. I soon convinced myself that only with empirical knowledge could I really understand the magical comestible.

So began my adventure with all things chocolate.

I started experimenting with different categories of chocolate — single-estate beans, single-origin cacao, bars with varied cocoa content, 62% semi-sweet, 70% bittersweet, 82% extra dark; the higher the cocoa percentage, the less sugar and more bitter the chocolate. I tested recipes for appearance, texture, aroma, and taste while recording results in a notebook. Soon I was substituting Valrhona, El Rey, Santander, Scharffen Berger, and Green & Black chocolate bars for Ghirardelli while Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle’s were banished from my kitchen as too commercial and poor quality.

I took each creation to Aldo to taste. He was a harsh critic. My chocolate torte needed liqueur to make it more pleasing and smooth, chocolate sauce for dipping was not tempered to perfection, the texture of my cakes not light enough. One day I mistakenly left freshly baked, chocolate-chocolate chip cookies on the seat of my car. Later I took them to Aldo.

“Just the way I like them,” he said. “Fresh from the oven!”

Slowly he began to approve of my baking talents.

My entry into the world of chocolate soon prompted home improvements, gutting a 19th century kitchen to design a proper space for tempering and baking chocolate. To help defray expenses, I made chocolate pastries on weekends for the Ice Cream Parlor in Orient, a quaint village five miles east of Greenport. My creations included an angel food cake made with 12-egg whites to substitute for the pound cake which the owner, Howard Leshaw, bought at the local IGA to serve with ice cream and hot chocolate sauce. The recipe came from the cookbook “The Gift of Southern Cooking” (2003), the product of an unusual, close partnership between Edna Lewis, an 87-year-old African-American cook, and Scott Peacock, a gay, white Southerner, half her age.

Being new to the pastry trade, I didn’t negotiate a contract in my favor. Howard and I split the profits 40-60. There was no marketing or promotion on his part and I literally ate my losses. After deducting the cost of supplies purchased at Le Gourmet Chef at Tanger Mall in Riverhead, my earnings amounted to $38. My accountant declared my chocolate venture a new business that had sustained heavy capital expenditures its first year.

In June 2007, when I was in Bahia for a conference, I took a bus south to the Costa do Cacau — “the Cocoa Coast — to visit plantations made famous by Jorge Amado’s novel “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.” Two years later, when I won a Julia Child Scholarship, I traveled to the Pays Basque in France where Sephardic Jews had introduced chocolate-processing after their 1492 expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. I met local chocolatiers, followed all stages of chocolate processing from bar-to-bonbon, and became privy to the internecine controversies between the older and emerging chocolatiers.

The following spring at Pentecost, I was invited back to Bayonne to be inducted as Ambassadrice du Chocolat along with Marielle Labèque, the younger sister of the renown French piano duo, and another woman, a protégé of Casnova, from the Italian Consulate in Bordeaux. The President of La Guilde des Chocolatiers, Jean Barate, introduced me with Gallic pageantry at a formal ceremony attended by the mayor, local politicians, regional chocolatiers, and guests. His speech was far longer than my “petit discours” in French.

Two friends of mine from East Hampton attended the ceremony, staying at the posh Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz by the Atlantic. Jack taped my speech, and when I listened to it afterwards, I heard his words “very nice” before the recorder stopped. We dined afterwards at the finest restaurant, Le Cheval Blanc, in Petit-Bayonne. I had the pleasure and honor of sitting next to Robert Linxe, founder of La Maison du Chocolat in Paris and the chocolatier who started the trend in bean-to-bar processing.

The next day I visited him at his apartment in Bayonne, his native city, where he’d retired in his 80s with his wife Gisèle. With pride he showed me his handwritten notebooks of recipes and instructions when he’d studied at the C.O.B.A. school in Switzerland at age 20.

As I was leaving, he asked me sheepishly, “Comment avez-vous trouvé le dessert hier soir,” wanting to know my thoughts on last evening’s chocolate dessert.

“I didn’t like it,” I said.

With an elfish grin he replied, “Moi non plus!”