Saying 'I love you' with hand-dipped chocolate

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's hard to pick a standout among the pretty truffles, stacks of fudge, piles of buttercrunch, salted caramels and chocolate-dipped fruits at Catherine's Chocolate Shop — until you lay your eyes on the big boy.

In the second room for chocolate sales at Great Barrington shop is a 2- by 2-foot, heart-shaped box containing a variety of 150 chocolates.

"This will get sold to a young fella," said Kathleen Sinico, owner and granddaughter of the original Catherine, whose family started the store some 50-plus years ago. She said the candy shop prepares about three of the largest heart-shaped chocolate boxes for Valentine's Day. They usually sell and there's one customer who comes in every year to buy one, but he wants all the pieces to be dark chocolate.

"We've put diamond rings in them before," Sinico said of the large boxes. "Lots of people have special requests this time of year."

February 12 and 13 are the busiest days of the year at Catherine's Chocolates and for many chocolatiers across the nation, as well. On Tuesday, there were nearly a dozen employees at the Stockbridge Road shop busily dipping chocolates. In the back, three people worked a chocolate-dipping conveyor belt. Lee Anne Thoms placed shiny molasses wafers the size and shape of domino pieces onto a slim conveyor belt and run them under some milk chocolate. She's been working at Catherine's for 33 years. At first, the job was a matter of convenience — she lived next door to it. But working in a candy shop soon grew on Thoms, who now lives in Pittsfield. She said the job is great because she gets the summers off — and she's surrounded by chocolate all day.

"It's like having your cake and eating it, too," she said.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Matt Sinico, Kathleen's grandson, and another confectioner are dipping candy-apple red cherries into fondant ahead of the treats being bathed in chocolate. It's not being used today, but sitting cold and dark in the back of the kitchen is the large circular candy cooker and a glistening copper kettle with a bowl deep enough to fit a beanbag chair. It's in this pot that confectioners make most of the candy recipes that have been handed down in Sinico's family for generations.

"None of us went to school for this," Matt Sinico said of his family of chocolatiers. "My dad and grandpa started doing it and it kept going through the family."

In the run up to Valentine's Day, Lisa Gomez, a 32-year employee of Catherine's, said the shop packages at least 72 pounds of chocolates per day. The biggest seller at Valentine's Day is the shop's chocolate-dipped strawberries.

"We're known for them at Valentine's Day," Kathleen Sinico said. It's hard to say how many strawberries will be dipped this month, but Sinico is anticipating the delivery of 30 "flats," which are about the size of standard industrial pallets, of strawberries.

"It's all strawberries, but up until then our big one is cherries," she said.

Rows of red strawberries were being dipped in creamy chocolate and packed into boxes, while staff hand dip molasses chews, nut clusters and cherries in dark, milk, and, every now and again, white chocolate. Kathleen Sinico, is quick to point out that white chocolate isn't really chocolate — it doesn't contain any cocoa powder — but the white color shows off the intricate designs created when using chocolate molds better than brown chocolate.

"We'll put it with other things," said Kathleen, displaying a bouquet of molded-chocolate roses with a single white flower in the front.

Catherine's Chocolates got its start in 1920s New York City, where Kathleen's Great-uncle, Emile, opened a chocolate and soda shop. Emile created many of the recipes still used today at Catherine's. In the mid-1950s, when Kathleen was a girl, her father, mother and sister, Carol, moved to the Berkshires. They opened their first chocolate shop in Great Barrington in 1958. About 20 years later, Kathleen and her husband, Joe, began the Catherine's Chocolates people are familiar with today.

Though the family has stuck to the old recipes, they've also kept up with evolving customer tastes.

"People ask me, what's new with chocolate," Kathleen Sinico said, "but there's nothing, really." The last exciting chocolate treat to be invented is sea-salt caramel, she said. The craze got its start in France in the late-'90s, but hit the big time when the Obamas fell in love with Seattle-based Fran's Chocolates' version.

Catherine's Chocolates makes a smooth, creamy salted caramel with — most importantly — just the right proportion of chocolate to caramel. More modern confections include chocolate-dipped pretzels with fun ingredients sprinkled on top like peanut butter chips, or toffee, or M&Ms.

Catherine's also makes some harder-to-find, classic chocolates including crackers dipped in chocolate, wintergreens, and Figaro — a venerable chocolate truffle.

"This was the first truffle ever made," Kathleen Sinico said.

The soft, square candy features layers of hazelnut and chocolate truffle. Unlike most truffles, these sweets are not encased in chocolate shells.

If someone is still undecided about which chocolates to give her or his love dove on Feb. 14, take some advice from Kathleen Sinico.

"The butter crunch is my favorite, no doubt," she said. "It's too bad I'm diabetic. How's that for, ya?"

Kristin Palpini can be reached at , @kristinpalpini on Twitter, and (413) 629-4621.


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