By Gretchen McKay

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Pride and tradition flavor her artisan chocolates

Categories : Food , Positively Pittsburgh

Nancy Tabbara didn’t know much about artisan chocolates when she decided to try her hand at making them professionally a few years ago.

A native of Lebanon, she had always loved baking, especially with chocolate — cakes are her specialty — and she certainly appreciated the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into gourmet candy making.

“Chocolate is one of my favorite things to eat,” she says.

But creating from scratch something as exquisite as a traditional French mendiant or caramel ganache enrobed in chocolate? That was biting off a lot. She’d been a banker before immigrating in 2007 from Beirut to Richland, Wash., where her husband, Saad, got a job as an interventional cardiologist.

It wasn’t until after the couple moved with their two children to Pittsburgh in 2013 that her love affair with chocolate turned from merely munching to making artisan bonbons.

The East End resident wasn’t a complete rookie. In the 1950s, when Lebanon became known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” her husband’s grandparents opened the confectionery Chocolat Saad on a fashionable corner in Beirut. Gift giving is huge in Lebanon, Ms. Tabbara notes, and their fancy handmade chocolates proved to be popular presents for holidays, birthdays and weddings.

The chocolaterie, which follows Belgian chocolate-making practices, is still operating today in Lebanon using many of its original recipes. But since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, it produces on a much smaller scale.

“We’d always talked about continuing the family business” in the U.S., Ms. Tabbara says.

In 2018, after taking chocolate-making courses and studying the art at the family factory in Beirut, Ms. Tabbara finally took the plunge. She opened Tabbara Artisan Chocolate (www.tabbarachocolates.com) in North Point Breeze.

Her friends and family were only too happy to serve as guinea pigs as she refined her recipes and candy-making skills, and were enthusiastic apostles in spreading the word about the budding business.

“People would ask, ‘Where can we find these?’”

Her business is now in its third year of production in the X Factory, an industrial shared-work complex on Lynn Way. One wall is all windows, allowing sunlight to stream in and bring the former manufacturing space to life. Its 1,000 square feet of work space gives her ample room to move melted chocolate from the Italian-built FBM Proxima chocolate tempering machine to the marble-topped work station on which she cools, pipes, fills, shapes and covers her candies.

There are separate areas for storage, packaging and refrigeration, allowing her to produce about 30 flavors and styles of chocolates.

While the tempering machine takes the guesswork and manual labor out of melting large amounts of chocolate, it’s still tedious work. Every other step is done by hand, from drying the fruits that go on top of the mendiants, to spray-painting the acrylic molds with colored cocoa butter to give them abstract, colorful designs, to roasting the hazelnuts and almonds used in clusters.

She packages all of her chocolates by hand, ties each branded box with a gold ribbon and takes care of shipping them in insulated box liners with cold packs so they don’t melt in transit.

“The history of our chocolate, it was always a nice gift for a nice occasion or milestone, so we want it to be pretty,” she says.

The Belgian chocolate discs from Callebaut arrive in 5½-pound bags and must be handled with care. The cocoa butter crystals in chocolate are sensitive to heat, and even a small amount of humidity can cause problems. Ms. Tabbaras has to make sure her kitchen always remains at a cool and dry 65 degrees.

The current product line includes a mouth-watering array of hazelnut and almond rocher, truffles, bars and squares, and a variety of fruit, nuts, salted caramels and flavored ganaches coated in white, dark or milk chocolate. They range in price from $8 for a bag of 12 squares to $40 for a 24-piece mixed assortment.

Because Ms. Tabbara is always experimenting, what you find in a box could change at any time.

Unlike in Beirut, where the family has stuck to traditional flavors, her chocolates are sometimes filled with orange liqueur, raspberry or passionfruit. Her only rule is that it can’t be too sweet.

“The industry has really evolved,” she says. “Tastes have evolved.”

After being melted to a precise temperature (113 degrees for milk chocolate), the chocolate must be tempered on a marble slab to create a smooth and creamy mouthfeel and a beautiful satin sheen. Tempering also give chocolate that satisfying hard snap! when you break off a piece. Otherwise it might crumble, or be hard to remove from a mold. It then has to be molded, filled or flavored, cooled and decorated — a process that takes about two days to complete.

“You need a lot of patience or it just doesn’t work,” she says.

Still, on a recent Monday, Ms. Tabbara was all smiles as she cooled a mixture of warm milk chocolate and hazelnut paste on a Silpat sheet with an offset spatula and metal pastry scraper. She placed the gianduja into a white plastic bowl, folded in some hazelnuts she’d caramelized earlier in the day, then spooned the sweet and nutty chocolate spread into a pastry bag.

She piped it into coin-like molds, shook the pan to release air bubbles and work the chocolate into the corners and crevices, and placed a milk chocolate coin she’d prepared earlier on top of each cavity. After setting, the candy would be enrobed with more chocolate the next day. 

Despite the constraints of the pandemic — or maybe because of it — the company has been steadily growing. Ms. Tabbara has sold out of some products on holidays like Easter and Christmas, when people are willing to fork over a little extra for a luxury product made with quality ingredients.  She also is doing custom work, creating favor boxes for weddings and the hospitality industry, and a “spring bouquet” of solid chocolate flowers for a local flower shop.

If you’d rather purchase it in person, you can find Tabbara Artisan Chocolate at Glassworks and Cheeks in Shadyside (www.glassworksandcheeks.com), Feast on Brilliant in Aspinwall (www.feastonbrilliant.com) and Mediterra Cafe in Sewickley and Mt. Lebanon (www.mediterracafe.com). 

Ms. Tabbara feels her success comes from the confidence her customers have in her processes, and the knowledge that she’s using high-quality ingredients. That, and the pleasure that comes with eating a great piece of chocolate.

“It brings happiness to people,” she says.