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Tis the season for some chocolate: Candy shops gear up for Christmas

Chocolate is given often as a gift to loved ones. The heart-shaped box for Valentine's Day and the infamous chocolate orange at Christmastime have come to signify the holidays in many ways.

The Christmas season is typically a busy time for chocolate makers. Three candy shops in Macon County put a lot of thought into holiday preparations despite the currently slow economy.

The family businesses of Chocolate Obsession on Main Street in Franklin, Mountainside Chocolates on Cowee Mountain and Kilwin's of Highlands have been cranking out the chocolate Santas, the peppermint bark and the assorted truffle gift boxes to satisfy everyone's needs for chocolate this season.

Chocolate Obsession owners William and Sharon Bell have been in the chocolate business for nearly five years. Sharon said she even dreams of new chocolate recipes at night and can't wait to get up and try them. Previously a stay-at-home mom, she says she always baked and made chocolates at Christmas.

"People love chocolate. It is an easy gift. We sell a lot of chocolate- covered popcorn," said Sharon, who also gets holiday orders for parties and events and ships chocolate and fruit baskets out as gifts.

The couple's truffles are made with real cream and no stabilizers. They must be refrigerated and used within seven days. A truffle is a cream-filled chocolate. Sharon explained how one can infuse the cream to flavor it, but said she doesn't use flavorings but rather real fruit. She heats the cream and adds the fruit; then she strains out the chunks of fruit and beats it with chocolate.

"We use real vanilla and butter," she said.

The display case is aglow with all varieties of chocolate and other tasty convections. "Bear poo" gleams with milk chocolate-covered marshmallows. "Panther claws" ooze with cashews and caramel. "Haystacks" topple with peanut butter and butterscotch and "turtles" filled with caramel, pecans and chocolate beg to be sampled.

One shopper tasted a butter cream and paused in thought, exclaiming, "Wow, man, oh boy, this is rich." Customers stop, stay and chat, eating convections like sandwiches in a deli.

Every day, said Sharon, people come in and ask for a specific candy they remember from childhood, and she tries to make it for them. Pralines and old-fashioned divinity are regional favorites. Dark chocolate is the most popular chocolate flavor at Chocolate Obsession and is revered for its health benefits as well.

"We're always doing new things and going to chocolate shows and conventions, learning new techniques and buying new equipment," said Sharon. She tests her new concoctions on her three kids until she gets them the way she likes them.

William cooks the caramels, and the two work together in the kitchen in the back of the shop. The kids enjoy dipping the cookies and making brittle. The family also makes their own hot fudge and waffle cones.

Sharon spoke of the chocolate tempering process, saying that if the chocolate isn't cooled at the right speed it will "bloom out" and turn white. She and William love to share their passion for chocolate and enjoy helping local high school seniors who come to the business for their senior projects.

While they usually can't keep up with demand during the holiday season, Sharon said that this year business has not been as good, and it seems that people are really struggling.

"We're not looking to make a killing off of Christmas," she said, "but just make it through the winter." Chocolate Obsession, she said, tries to be reasonable about everything and avoids hidden costs such as packing fees.

Deborah and Ray Yost, owners of Mountainside Chocolates on the Sylva Road at the top of Cowee Mountain, share concerns over the economy. Buying the business less than a year ago, they say they hope to ride out this economic downturn. Their biggest month this year was in October during leaf season. Due to the shop's location, said Deborah, they get a lot of tourism traffic.

Mountainside Chocolates has a long history in the area, and the shop came with an old copper pot used for melting toffees like candy makers used nearly 200 years ago. The couple also purchased secret 100-year-old recipes for their time-tested sweets.

They make high quality chocolates, fudge and brittles, and accept orders from an extensive ordering list.

"If we can do it, we'll try," said Deborah of testing new recipes. "We're willing to try just about anything."

The shop's biggest sellers are English toffee, peanut butter cups and turtlettes. Deborah said she even ships out Mountainside turtlettes to a celebrity client at the Trump Towers.

The Yosts have a three-day truffle recipe that encompasses preparing the truffle, rolling it and dipping and decorating each one. They make things in small quantities and without preservatives.

"We're literally like elves back there putting things together," Deborah said. "We make candy all day long every day." For the holidays, they are making chocolate Santas, peppermint bark, mint and egg nog truffles, and chocolate dipped candy canes.

Deborah said she comes from a strong cooking background in an Italian family that competed for best recipes, and her grandfather owned a restaurant. The couple's daughter, the youngest of five children, is a freshman at Franklin High School and enjoys waiting on customers in the shop. Ray, she said, dips the chocolatecovered cherries.

"It is a craft," said Deborah of making chocolate. "The oldschool chocolatier is a dying breed. You really have to believe in your product. We think it is the best around." In fact, her customers have sent email testimonials telling her so.

The milk chocolate chili truffle was rich and creamy, with a bite that echoed of spice without being overpowering. It was as if the truffle itself was a cooling ember and, in tasting, the essence of flames was inhaled.

Jerry Moore, owner of Kilwin's on Main Street in Highlands, said his family has embraced the chocolate business as well, and it has been quite fun.

Moore has been making chocolate and running Kilwin's for two years. His brother taught him about chocolate from his candy shop in Florida, and Moore left the insurance business to pursue his own dream.

Chocolate, he said, is the perfect gift for those who have most everything they need because it will certainly be something they want. His best selling turtles are generous piles of pecans and caramel enrobed in chocolate.

"It's an easy way to take care of the whole family," said Moore, who has been shipping packages of chocolate and fudge across the country.

Moore's four home-schooled children help him in the family's shop. His 12-year-old son can handle pretty much everything, he said. His nine-year-old daughter makes chocolates, his five-year-old makes boxes, and the baby, he said, "runs interference."

Moore paddles out the fudge in the kitchen at the front of the store. "We hand-dip our pralines for people to watch," he said, adding that the shop is well known for its special mixture of sugar, butter, cream and pecans.

For the holiday season, he fills the store with peppermint crunch fudge, white chocolate fudge and peppermint bark-an enticing concoction of dark and white chocolate layered with pieces of peppermint embedded and sprinkled on top.

Moore said he finds himself nibbling the dark chocolate daily. "The more you're around chocolate," he said, "the more you begin to enjoy the dark, robust flavors."

Source: Macon County News

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