Gretchen McKay

A519 Chocolate turns into a sweet career

Some of the hand-crafted chocolates created by Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

With dual degrees in neuroscience and psychology, Amanda Wright possesses both a knack for problem-solving and the patience of a saint. Two skills that served her well as a research assistant studying adolescent brain development at the University of Pittsburgh.

Yet, ever since she was little, the soul of an artist burned inside.

When she decided in 2012, to put her science career on a back burner to study baking and pastry arts at one of the country’s premier culinary schools, no one was surprised. Least of all herself.

While the 28-year-old loved her job at Pitt, and the fact that it complemented her husband’s doctoral studies in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “I had that slight dread of not doing exactly what I wanted to do to be happy,” she says.

So back to West Coast the couple went, where during her first semester at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the San Diego native figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life: to create one-of-a-kind confectionery from chocolate. Serving as an assistant to CIA instructor and Team USA member Stephen Durfee at the 2013 La Coupe de Monde de la Patisserie competition in Lyon, France, only cemented that goal — and not just because the aromas that come with the job of chocolatier are so intoxicating.

“It’s one medium, but you can be creative and express yourself in so many ways,” she says of the intricate process of turning high-quality chocolate into delectable treats like truffles and hand-dipped candies.

Flash forward to April 2015. With stints as a pastry cook and sous chef and creative director at an artisan chocolate shop in tony Yountville in the Napa Valley under her toque, Ms. Wright and her husband, Andy Rape, boomeranged back to Pittsburgh to open A519 Chocolate in Greenfield.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Talk about a well-laid plan: The business launched just four days after the couple arrived in Lawrenceville. And her hand-painted chocolates were such that they quickly found fans not just at local farmers markets and boutique shops but also with clients such as Stage AE, Carnegie Mellon, Hotel Monaco and Coterie, a co-working space for women in the Frick Building.

Ms. Wright concedes the move was risky. But at the same time, the couple felt certain there was a growing market for hand-crafted artisan chocolates, even at the princely sum of $30 for a 16-piece box. At least there would be once people saw what bold, gorgeous works of art her truffles were and came to understand the precision, care and artistry that goes into making them.

What’s it take to create her edible treasures? Ms. Wright this month started offering private truffle-making courses at A519’s expanded year-old kitchen in Millvale. The interactive class — which starts with a tasting — costs $85 and takes about 2½ hours, during which attendees try their hand at everything from tempering chocolate on a marble slab (it’s harder than it looks) and creating chocolate shells to painting an acrylic mold with colored cocoa butter. Guests also learn how chocolate is made, from the growth of the cacao bean to its harvest, processing and preparation. The price includes a six-piece box of truffles.

Ms. Wright describes her work as “magical,” but it’s really a fragrant labor of love. She starts early each morning at 6 and often toils late into the night in her 68-degree, 400-square-foot industrial kitchen. Quality is key; each piece starts with milk or dark chocolate from Valrhona, a premier French chocolate maker, and most of the fillings, infusions and flavorings are sourced locally —  cream from Penn Hills’ Turner Dairy Farms, coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, nuts and other dry goods from Pennsylvania Macaroni.

While the holidays are the busiest, every season is chocolate season. Ms. Wright hand-crafts thousands of truffles each week. It’s as taxing as it sounds, but make no mistake, she never gets tired of it.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate fills molds with chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

“Every day I get to go back to my childhood,” she says, recalling how when her teenaged self was grumpy, her father got her to chill out by slipping her a Dove chocolate heart.

She also loves the fact she still gets to use the left side of her brain. Truffle-making involves so many rules and incredible precision, and there’s also a science to creating a killer ganache or soft caramel. Also she gets to put the cooking techniques she learned in culinary school to good use, such as when she makes pralines or nougat from scratch for fillings.

Her colorful, abstract designs, she says, are usually the result of a conversation with her husband, who is in charge of marketing and packaging. But sometimes she just has fun and lets go with the splatters and swirls. She also can customize the chocolates with a client’s desired colors or logo, using an innovative three-dimensional printing process.

The most popular truffle is her signature black-and-gold salted caramel, crafted with gray salt, but there’s always 10 rotating flavors to choose from. Depending on the season, the chocolates might be filled with fresh strawberries, pumpkin or apple cinnamon caramel, or a gourmet take on s’mores; two new spring flavors are mandarin honeysuckle (dark chocolate infused with fresh mandarin and honeysuckle tea) and bananas foster (blond Dulcey chocolate with bananas and Maggie’s Farm Rum). For Valentine’s Day, the shop will feature a special line of single-origin dark chocolates, including Illanka (Peru), Manjari  (Madagascar), Nyangbo  (Ghana) and Alpaco (Ecuador).

While the idea of opening a stand-alone store is perpetually on the table, the couple has no concrete plans to make that move just yet; they’re  too busy keeping pace with current demand. For the immediate future, it’s just about creating a product she’s proud of, and having fun.

“I’m following my heart and allowing myself to express my creativity,” she says.

To sign up for one of A519’s truffle-making classes. go to shop.a519chocolate.com or  call 412-475-9519.

Raise your spirits this winter with toasty cocktails

Nothing may be more pleasurable at day’s end than a well-crafted cocktail. The clink of ice on glass, the magical mix of sweet, sour and alcoholic — it’s a great way to unwind and be merry, especially during the holiday season.

But who says a great drink has to be cold?

This time of year, when Jack Frost nips at more than just your toes, warm cocktails just might be the thing to heat you back up from the inside.

But don’t just take this mulled cider lover’s word for it; take it from a professional.

“When you come in from the cold chill you get here in Pittsburgh, there’s nothing better than a hot toddy, Irish coffee or mulled wine,” says bartender extraordinaire Sean Enright of the South Side’s Tiki Lounge and the after-hours Carrick Literary and Social Association in Carrick.

Warm mugs of boozy coffee or citrus-spiced wine are not just the stuff of a ski vacation. They can be had during staycations, too. You don’t have to be a mixologist to create a winning winter cocktail or haul out any special equipment. In fact, some of the best winter sippers can be done in three steps: pour, stir, enjoy.

While warm-weather cocktails are often thirst quenchers (a good margarita goes down way too fast and easy), winter cocktails are meant to be lingered over, savored. Mr. Enright likes to warm the body and soul during cold snaps with concoctions that feature richer, darker spirits — think whiskey, rum, brandy and cognac — and the dessert-style spices — cinnamon, cloves, allspice and ginger.

“They go hand in hand with the other things you’re eating,” he says.

One of his favorite winter cocktail is Irish coffee — spiked with Jameson’s. He’s also a huge fan of the hot toddy, a simple drink of a brown liquor such as brandy, whiskey or rum mixed with honey, lemon juice and boiling water, and, when the mood strikes, also a tea bag. (See, we told you this wasn’t brain surgery.)

“It couldn’t be easier, and you can mix it however you want,” he says.

At Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion, bartenders use another seasonal drink — a mug of hot apple cider — as a base for the signature Moonshine Cider. A shot of caramel moonshine from Tall Pines Distillery in nearby Salisbury, Somerset County, gives the hot cocktail its adult kick.

Former Pittsburgher-turned-New York cookbook author and “Today” show contributor Casey Barber suggests cocoa spiked with bourbon and hazelnut-flavored liqueur if you want something hot, sweet and chocolatey.

“I love hot chocolate so much that I can down a whole mug in four big glugs, so I need something that makes me drink it more slowly and enjoy it,” she says. Enter bourbon, “which makes everything better, and turns it into more of a sipping drink.” The marshmallow on top is completely optional, but definitely makes it more of a luxury.

For larger gatherings, where making many individual drinks could be a drag, nothing beats a large pot of red wine mulled with a few ounces of cognac, slices of citrus, cinnamon sticks and dash of peppercorn. It’s easy, relatively inexpensive and ladles up a dose of antioxidants.

While you want a winter cocktail to warm you up on the inside, you don’t want the drink’s heat to beat you over the head or burn your lips. So think “really, really warm” instead of “scalding hot.” Mr. Enright, whose book “Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife & Bartending Tradition,” with co-author Cody McDevitt, arriving on store shelves in March, also suggests reaching for the good stuff when making individual cocktails.

“The cheaper the alcohol, the less impressive it will be,” he says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

O’Halloran’s Blarney Buster

PG tested

This cocktail was the first-place winner of the Jameson Irish Cocktail Contest held in Monroeville in March 1983, the whiskey maker’s first event in the Pittsburgh market. It’s a boozier version of the warm drink made famous in the winter of 1943 by Limerick chef Joe Sheridan.

Preheat the mug by pouring scalding hot water into it to prep it, then pour it out.

1½ ounces Jameson Irish Whiskey

1/2 ounce Bailey’s Irish Cream

1/2 ounce Kahlua

1/2 ounce Grand Marnier

Hot coffee

Whipped cream and creme de menthe, for garnish

“Build” the drink by pouring the whiskey, Irish cream, Kahlua and Grand Marnier directly into the pre-warmed mug. Give a quick a stir to integrate flavors and add black coffee to fill. Top with whipped cream and color with a little bit of green crème de menthe.

— “Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife & Bartending Tradition” by Cody McDevitt and Sean Enright (The History Press; March 20, 2017: $21.99)

The Spotted Pig’s Mulled Wine

PG tested

This classic mulled wine from New York’s Spotted Pig is a spicy, citrusy way to warm up your loved ones. Avoid boiling the mixture – not only will it burn off the alcohol but also can alter the flavor.

4 bottles of red wine

1 orange, sliced into wheels

1/2 lemon, sliced into wheels

4 cinnamon sticks

4 bay leaves

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

3/4 teaspoon whole allspice berries

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 cups superfine sugar

3 ounces cognac

Combine wine, orange and lemon wheels, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, vanilla bean pod and seeds, peppercorns, allspice, red pepper flakes and sugar in a large pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add cognac. Ladle into warmed punch cups. Garnish with orange wheels.

Serves 12 to 14.

— “Cocktails for the Holidays: Festive Drinks to Celebrate the Season” by editors of Imbibe Magazine (Chronicle, September 2014)

Seven Springs Moonshine Cider

PG tested

This spicy cocktail is a signature apres-ski drink at Seven Springs Mountain Resort. It features Tall Pines Distillery Caramel Moonshine from Tall Pines Distillery in Salisbury, Somerset County. 

Cinnamon sugar (1/2 cup sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cinnamon)

1 ounce moonshine

Hot apple cider

Cinnamon stick, for garnish

Rim a glass mug with cinnamon sugar. Add 1 ounce moonshine. Fill mug with hot apple cider, then stir ingredients with a cinnamon stick. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 drink.

— Seven Springs

Hot Metal Toddy

PG tested

Warm and toasty, a hot toddy requires just a handful of ingredients: a base liquor, honey, lemon, and tea or boiling water. Revel + Roost’s version features rum and brandy sweetened with allspice honey syrup.  

1½ ounces spiced rum

1/4 ounce apricot brandy

1/4 ounce allspice honey syrup (recipe follows)

Hot water

Lemon zest for garnish

Into a footed mug, pour rum, brandy and allspice honey syrup. Top off with hot water, and garnish with a lemon zest.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Revel + Roost, Downtown

Allspice Honey Syrup

1 cup water

1 cup honey

1 ounce fresh allspice berries, ground

Combine honey and water in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Add allspice and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for another 10 minutes. Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth into a clean glass jar. Cover and keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Spiced Hazelnut Bourbon Hot Chocolate

PG tested

This grown-up hot chocolate from “Pierogi Love” author and former Pittsburgher Casey Barber is spiked with hazelnut liqueur and bourbon. Perfect for warming up after sledding, skating or shoveling the sidewalk.

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus additional for garnish if desired

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

4 cups (1 quart) whole or reduced-fat milk

3 tablespoons bourbon

1/4 cup hazelnut liqueur, such as Frangelico

Whipped cream and marshmallows (optional)

Whisk sugar, cocoa powder, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and cloves together in a small saucepan set over medium heat.

Pour in 1/4 cup milk and whisk until a paste forms, then slowly whisk in the remaining milk. As soon as the milk comes to a simmer, remove from the heat and whisk in the bourbon and hazelnut liqueur.

Pour the hot chocolate into 4 12- to 16-ounce mugs. Top with whipped cream or marshmallows and sprinkle with cocoa powder, if desired. Drink immediately.

Makes 4 large or 8 small servings.

— Casey Barber, Good.Food.Stories