Smile Politely

Chocolate delights in Champaign-Urbana

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of committed chocolate lover to occasional cocoa nibbler, you’ll be glad to know that Champaign-Urbana has access to world-class chocolatiers. I visited Bent Bean, Art Mart, and Cheese and Crackers to review locally-made and artisanal chocolates.

The foremost criteria I had in mind was quality. Behind the innocuous bar of chocolate is a whirlwind of traders, growers, and a tight race for the rarest and most flavorful beans to produce a premier couverture. The couverture, from the French couvrir, or “to cover,” is a high quality chocolate that is melted down by confectioners and chocolatiers to make artisanal chocolates. I narrowed down this review to confectioners and chocolatiers that only use the top 5%-20% of all cocoa beans produced. Mindful of the sourcing, quality and purity of their chocolates, the following chocolatiers and confectioners do not use fillers, additives, or preservatives.

After having tasted internationally renown chocolates for this review, I can assure you that Urbana’s masterful chocolatier, Marlene Hendricks, easily competes with the best. Marlene uses the highest quality couverture, so much so that she refuses to divulge the manufacturer. 

A stand-out quality of Marlene’s chocolate is its unparalleled freshness. Her chocolates are delivered within days of being made and are not refrigerated. After tasting a variety of chocolates in one sitting, I can attest that freshness makes a substantial difference in quality.

Marlene’s job is the wholesale production of Rubens Belgian Chocolates. Rae Spooner retails Marlene’s products through the Bent Bean. These two women make a dynamic team, and I was lucky enough to speak with them about their signature and holiday chocolates. 

Rae recounted how she sold Marlene’s chocolates in a storefront at Lincoln Square Mall from 2012-2016. Sadly, the Bent Bean no longer has a retail space, but has stands at the Farmer’s Market and Holiday Market. You can easily order Marlene’s magical truffles, chocolate pieces and bars from Rae at (217) 418-7052, via Facebook, or their soon-to-launch website. Chocolates are sold by the pound. A 9-piece box is around $20, and a 12-piece box, which weighs around ½ a pound, is about $27. You can arrange to pick-up orders, have them delivered ($5 within Urbana, Champaign, and Savoy), or shipped outside of town (price varies). 

Rubens Belgian Chocolate is an institution in Urbana. It was established 35 years ago by Marlene’s mother who adhered to strictly traditional Belgian chocolatiering. Marlene grew up being trained by her mother, and then eventually became a chef. After her mother retired five years ago, Marlene took over the company, but decided to expand its products with more experimental and seasonal goods. For example, she makes a matcha truffle, salted caramel chocolate, alcohol truffles, and a dairy-free coconut chocolate truffle. 

In addition to her signature Belgian chocolates, Marlene makes seasonal and occasional figures such as turkeys, pumpkins, snowmen, rabbits, and violins. These would make the perfect centerpieces for a special occasion. Marlene suggests that they be filled and surrounded by mounds of colorfully wrapped chocolates to decorate the table. 

Marlene’s winter pièce de résistance is the yule log. You can find pictures of it on the Bent Bean Facebook page. The yule logs are hollow and can be filled with individual chocolate pieces. The small one holds 3 pieces, the medium holds 12-15 pieces and the large holds about 20 pieces ($15-$100).

Marlene is particularly proud of her new collection, “Cordially Yours.” These cordial truffles are filled with intensely flavored liqueurs. Some flavors are Irish Whiskey, Bailey’s, Chocolate Covered Cherry with Brandy (morello, not maraschino), Rum Barrel, Kahlua, and Grand Marnier. Marlene does not skimp on the spirits and liqueurs, so they would make very festive treats.

Marlene and Rae were kind enough to provide me some samples to review. I tried a Cappuccino chocolate, Caramel chocolate, Hazelnut chocolate and Irish Whiskey Chocolate. The Cappuccino was in a fan-shape, and had a feather-light whipped filling. The filling contrasted nicely to the artfully thin and crisp chocolate covering. While the cappuccino filling was very bitter, it was not overpowering. It had complex floral and nutty notes, and a depth of flavor that developed with each bite. The Caramel was in a flower shape, and had a buttery, nutty, and light liquid filling. It tasted almost like butterscotch without being too saccharine. You could also clearly taste the cream used to make the caramel. The Hazelnut, which was in a nut shape, had a whipped filling that tasted of pure hazelnut. In some ways, this chocolate was like a refined version of Nutella. The Irish Whiskey chocolate was very strong. Marlene concentrated the flavor of 6 shots in her filling, and you can taste every one of them. 

All the chocolates Marlene gave me had very thin shells of chocolate, which speaks to her professional talents. I was impressed by the range of textures and the clarity and concentration of the flavors. The chocolates reflect Marlene’s ambition to maximize flavor and quality. With a chef’s palate, she experiments with new flavor combinations and works hard to distill pure flavors.    

If Rubens Chocolates gives you old-fashioned Belgian chocolates with a contemporary spirit, Black & White Confections‘ chocolates deliver a more American old-fashioned candy store style with a modern attention to quality. They are refined in different ways, and are excellent options.

Art Mart’s chocolate display case is filled with Black & White Confections by Jennifer and Brandon Thomas of Mahomet. Black & White has a storefront in Gibson City, where Jennifer makes caramels, toffees and chocolates by hand. The candy shop’s name pays homage to both owner’s professions as Champaign County police officers. Art Mart has retailed Black & White chocolates for about 5 to 6 years, and their mutual success speaks to their solid quality. Art Mart sell the chocolates at $22/lb, with 10-12 pieces making about ½ a pound, and 15-20 pieces making about 1 pound. These chocolates are packaged in a black and white box decorated with a gold band and Black & White business card. 

When I visited Art Mart, Linda Ballard walked me through their mounds of chocolates. She told me that the different swirls on top of the chocolates are not merely for decoration, but are part of a code system that helps confectioners differentiate chocolates. Also, according to Linda, the Dark Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt is hands-down the best flavor, and the most popular. After having tried it, I can see why.

The Dark Chocolate Sea Salt brought together sweet, bitter and salty together in a sublime treat. The caramel was chewy, tender and nutty. Its soft texture contrasted with the thin crispiness of the chocolate shell, and the crunchy bursts of sea salt. The Vanilla chocolate had a dense filling redolent of high-quality vanilla that simply melts in your mouth. The Coffee chocolate had a similar texture to the Vanilla. It had an intense, round, and smooth coffee flavor without any bitterness.

Cheese and Crackers sells chocolates by Norman Love and Patricia’s Chocolate. These chocolates are excellent examples of world-class quality. Norman Love Confections, based in Fort Meyers, Florida, consistently wins awards in national and international pastry competitions. Patricia’s Chocolate, based in Grand Haven, Michigan, is rarely sold outside of its home state. Though Patricia doesn’t compete and foster publicity as well as Norman Love, her chocolates are revered internationally. She is one of the very few chocolatiers in the world who sells Fortunato No. 4, made from a Peruvian Grand Cru chocolate. Bart Basi, owner of Cheese and Crackers, described the Fortunato No. 4 as worthy of being on every foodie’s bucket list. Luckily for us, he carries it. Bart also packages each the jewel-like chocolate ($2.99/piece), in a clear box with blue tulle bow. 

Norman Love’s chocolates are masterful at delivering simple yet powerful flavors that cascade across your tongue in couplets. I tried the Peanut Butter Cup (green circle) and Hazelnut Lemon ganache (yellow half-dodecahedron). The Peanut Butter Cup has smooth and creamy peanut butter filling encased in a thin crisp of a bittersweet shell. I loved how the chocolate first lulls you with a decadent peanut filling and then startles you with the bitter chocolate flavor few moments later. The Hazelnut Lemon similarly hits you first with a pleasantly tart and very bright lemon flavor, which is rounded out subtly with a nutty creaminess. After the dominant citrus begins to fade, the silky hazelnut flavor blossoms.   

Patricia’s Chocolates are less punchy than Norman’s, but are far more complex. Its ganache’s flavors felt more refined and better-contained, singing like a string quartet rather than a brass band. The Peaches and Cream ganache surprises you with a strong, ripe peach flavor in a meltingly-creamy center. As the chocolate melts, the full peach flavor lightens and blows into a wistful aftertaste of summer. With the Lavender ganache, I was apprehensive about the potential of a medicinal flavor. Fortunately, it was superbly mellow and balanced perfectly with the dark chocolate. This flavor profile, and the thin chocolate covering is indicative of Patricia’s talent as a chocolatier. The Lavender ganache has a slightly grainy texture, which is echoed by the crystallized violet petals, that requires you to chew on it to open up the flavors.  

If after trying these incredible chocolates, you want to experiment making your own, Cheese and Crackers also sells Belgian chocolate, Callebaut, in bulk ($19.99/lb).  Callebaut uses fine-grade cocoa in its couverture, and is used in top-tier establishments. Bart uses them to make strawberry tuxedos for Valentine’s Day.  Though you might balk at the price, Bart says that ½ a pound of the Callebaut is slightly cheaper than the high quality chocolates in supermarkets.

As the holiday season nears, and you’re in need of gifts, stocking stuffers (but not over a fireplace!), or table decorations, it’s the perfect time to try incredible chocolates made and retailed in Champaign-Urbana. While I am aware that there are many places to buy chocolate in town, such as World Harvest, Common Ground Food Co-op, and Fannie Mae, there’s something extra-special about hand-made, artisanal chocolates whose designs, execution, and quality are superlative. If you’re looking for a guilty pleasure or special indulgence, I say go for the best. 

My review is far from exhaustive. If you would like to recommend any other chocolatiers or confectioners in Champaign-Urbana, please feel free to add their information to the comments. 

All photos by Jean Lee.

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