Finding Journey Shannon in her workplace is as easy as following one’s nose. The rich aroma of warm chocolate that envelops visitors at the entrance to the Family Focus building is a sure sign Ms. Shannon is downstairs in the kitchen.
The scent is just a palate-teaser for the delicacies Ms. Shannon crafts in the place she calls her “studio.”
Ms. Shannon is the founder of Noir d’Ebene Chocolat et Patisserie (French for Black of Ebony Chocolate and Pastries), purveyor of handcrafted pastries and bean to bar chocolates. An Evanston native and 1993 Evanston Township High School graduate, she is a professionally trained pastry chef who has studied culinary arts at both Illinois Institute of Art and the French Pastry School in Chicago.
Ms. Shannon was known as Shannon Sudduth before she renamed herself. She traces to a Creole mother from Lafayette, La., the mélange of “history, spices, stories, foreign language, spells, and magic,” she brings to her edible creations.
She calls herself “the Picasso of chocolate.”
Ms. Shannon fell in love with chocolate-making on a trip to visit a friend in Hawaii. After tasting some chocolate at a farmers’ market on the island, she asked who made it. The answer, “We do,” was her introduction to Madre Chocolates, who became her first teachers. Later, she encountered Manoa Chocolates, who furthered her education.
Ms. Shannon came home to Evanston six or seven years ago alight with her new passion. She purchased essential equipment – two chocolate machines, a laminate (a rolling cart with a granite or marble top), and a bench scraper from Home Depot – and launched her business. Where funding for industrial-strength machinery fell short, she bridged the gap with her own ingenuity.
Ninety minutes in her kitchen serve as a beginning tutorial in making artisanal chocolate. She demonstrates the basic steps involved in converting cacao beans to chocolate and the fine art of tempering, which makes the chocolate stable and delicious.
Ms. Shannon begins by plunging one hand into a bucket to pull out the dull brown, acorn-sized nuts that are raw cacao beans. This batch, ordered for the holidays, consists of Trinitario beans from a farm in La Masica, Honduras. Like all her imports, they are single-origin, individually sourced, and fair trade. Like coffee beans and wine, cacao beans have individual flavor profiles, though Ms. Shannon claims her palate is not discerning enough to distinguish all the flavors. The Honduran beans are said to have a little fruitiness with notes of honey, cedar, and sandalwood.
The first step in making chocolate is roasting. Ms. Shannon pours as many beans as will fit onto a commercial sheet pan and then says she roasts them “until the kitchen smells like brownies.” Next she uses an ordinary wooden rolling pin to break up the beans.
When the beans are sufficiently broken, paper-like husks are left among the broken beans. Ms. Shannon uses a hair dryer to blow the husks away, a “winnowing” process comparable to the winnowing that separates chaff from grain at harvest time.
The broken beans go into a food processer and come out as “a kind of slush,” Ms. Shannon says. If she had a stronger, commercial-grade chocolate machine, it would produce the small pieces called cocoa nibs instead of slush. When she was new to the business, she skipped a couple steps and bought nibs and later, paste. She now chooses to buy beans and do her own roasting because, she says, “it tastes better.”
The slush is mixed with cocoa butter in a proportion she decides in advance – 75% beans, 25% cocoa butter for Noir d’Ebene dark chocolate. Cacao beans are half cocoa butter, which is extracted commercially from the beans by hydraulic presses. Ms. Shannon’s mixture stays in the chocolate machine for days – as many as seven for dark chocolate, just one for white – with sugar added partway through. It is not surprising that these hard working machines need frequent repairs.
The surest way to ruin chocolate is to expose it to high heat, which will cause it to burn, or to get liquid in it, which causes it to seize or lump. The result is irredeemable, Ms. Shannon says. “You have to start over.”
Once the chocolate is well mixed, it must be tempered, a risky business. Tempering is precise and demanding, which leads Ms. Shannon to say of chocolate, “It is my friend; it is my enemy.” The Piron brothers, whose own Belgian chocolate shop is beloved in Evanston, taught Ms. Shannon how to temper.
She makes three kinds of chocolate: dark, milk, and white. Each has minimal ingredients. Dark has ground cacao beans, sugar, and cocoa butter; milk chocolate has added milk powder; and white chocolate has cocoa butter, milk powder, and sugar. Today she is making white chocolate and white chocolate peppermint bark for a restaurant.
Tempering keeps the cocoa butter from separating from the chocolate. It gives a chocolate bar its shine, its smooth texture, and its snap when broken. Temper starts when Ms. Shannon pours the chocolate from the machine into a pan and heats it on the stove to melt the fat structure. She uses an infrared thermometer, which need not touch the chocolate. When the molten white chocolate reaches precisely the right temperature, she pours it onto the granite surface of her laminate. She executes a kind of graceful dance, scraping and moving the creamy liquid until it loses some shine, begins to thicken, and cools by some 10 degrees. Once cooled, the chocolate must again be briefly reheated, this time very gently.
Then comes the test: Ms. Shannon dips a big spoon in the chocolate and puts the coated spoon in the refrigerator. If it solidifies, the temper is complete. A few minutes later, she takes out the chocolate-covered spoon, no drips in sight. All that remains to make the white chocolate peppermint bark is to spread the chocolate on a silicone mat on a baking sheet, sprinkle it with crushed peppermint candies, cool it, and break it into pieces.
Ms. Shannon offers chocolate bark, chocolate caramel turtles and other delectable treats on her website, www.noirdebene.com. She features other confections as well – sweet potato pies and French macarons and the like, to make the holidays merrier. “I love sugar,” she writes. “It brings happiness, it inspires my dance, it widens my smile.”
Ms. Shannon possesses enough happiness to go around. She shares her joy, and her culinary skills, with elementary and high school students in her nonprofit outreach program, “Sugar in the Class.” She is planning to offer adult classes in her kitchen in the New Year.
Family Focus has special importance for Ms. Shannon, who as a child attended programs there. These days she practically lives in the kitchen, typically working 10- to 12-hour days. But “time goes by very quickly,” she says. I love what I do.”