As they say, good things come in chocolate . . . or something like that. Such sentiment could not be more evident than a visit to Maine Gourmet Chocolates at 5 Park St., Lewiston.

Open for almost one full year, the shop is owned by Stephanie Bernatchez of Auburn. Her selection of home-made candies, specialty popcorn and dipped pretzels runs the gamut from simple, plain and traditional to slightly offbeat, funky and spicy.

Bernatchez says one of her best-selling items is the Tabasco Sauce Brittle. Personally, I became so involved with her Sea Salt Brittle, it was nearly impossible to wrap my head around either the jalapeno or chipotle offerings. Most days, she has up to 17 different brittles on the shelf, five of which are modern, peppery twists on an old-fashioned favorite.

Bernatchez is inventive when it comes to her creations, and conducts a lot of research and development. She is constantly experimenting with mixing up unusual flavor combinations. “I’m one to throw raspberry flavoring into everything, for example. I can’t leave anything alone!” she said.

Bernatchez shared two of her favorite recipes with us: Cherry Cordials and Peanut Brittle. When making brittle, she noted, it is best and easiest to use a candy thermometer. They can be purchased at most stores for about $5. Otherwise you will need to use the old-fashioned method of testing drops of candy in very cold water (not iced) until it forms a ball.

Bernatchez pours almost all of her hot candy mixtures directly onto a Silpat —a nonstick, silicon baking mat. “Silpats are great!” she said, “Nothing sticks to them, they can be reused for years and no greasing is necessary.”

Another note: She advises not to make brittles on highly humid or rainy days, as it will not set up or harden correctly, and will become sticky very quickly.

Regarding the cherry cordials, if you cannot find cherries with stems to hold onto while dipping into the chocolate, use a fork or a candy-dipping tool. Dipping tools can be found in some craft stores and might cost $4 to $5 for a set of three.

For all the Needham fans out there, Maine Gourmet Chocolates offers up to eight clever flavor combinations including pina colada (which is “really refreshing,” she shared), Key lime, almond, blueberry and lemon, along with the traditional plain version. While Bernatchez is the primary candy maker, her husband, Gerry, has become the official Needham mixer. She found her Needham recipe in an old cookbook from her nana — “The Art of Cooking in Steuben; Serving Steuben since 1887.” The recipes were compiled from locals in the Steuben/Milbridge area, where Bernatchez grew up. Her Needham recipe is not cooked and, unlike other recipes, does not include mashed potatoes.

Her creativity has earned her several awards since going into business, giving her a bit of notoriety in Maine’s world of chocolate. Her Sea Salt Nut Bar, made with either milk or dark chocolates, has earned accolades at the Chocolate Lovers Fling in Portland, and her cheesecake bombs have taken awards at both Choco l’Art and the Chocolate Lovers Fling. She is already plotting this year’s contest recipe, which will remain a secret until the events take place this winter.

Bernatchez uses Merkens brand chocolate, which she has found to be high in quality yet affordable. “We will be selling it by the pound soon,” she said, for folks to use at home in their own candy-making and baking projects.

Bernatchez said her candy-making career began more than 20 years ago, when her daughter, Corrie-Marie, competed in local beauty pageants. They needed to come up with fundraising ideas to help defer the costs, and people loved her candy — enough to pay for it. Corrie-Marie, now a dedicated flavor consultant, taste-tester and recipe inventor, told her, “Mom, you’ve got to open a shop.”

Bernatchez found the location on Park Street last year. When you stop by to visit, I’d  advise you to bring a quarter for the parking meter — if you’re a quick decision maker, you’ll be able to share your candy joy by leaving extra time in the meter for the next customer.

Bernatchez often has samples to test before purchasing. Many items — such as caramels, cake bombs, cream puffs and off-season chocolate-dipped strawberries — are usually available by special order. And for those out-of-town friends and relatives who might crave a bit of sweetness in their lives? Orders can be placed online and shipped to any address.

Contact info: 783-8472 and www.mainegourmetcoastalcookies.com

Hours: Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 3 p.m.; Friday from noon to 5 p.m. Bernatchez will open by appointment. Closer to Christmas, she will be open seven days a week.

Stephanie’s Cherry Cordials (with fondant)

60 maraschino cherries, preferably with stems

3 tablespoons soft butter

3 tablespoons corn syrup

2 cups sifted confectioners sugar

1 pound chocolate wafers (a high-quality brand, such as Merkens)

Drain cherries and set on paper towels to dry.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine butter and corn syrup until smooth. Stir in confectioners sugar and knead by hand 4 to 5 minutes to create the fondant dough. If using a stand mixer (such as a Kitchen Aid or other brand) instead, adjust kneading time as necessary, usually from 2 to 3 minutes.

If the dough seems soft, refrigerate until stiffened (at least 20 minutes).

When the dough is ready, take about one teaspoon of fondant and wrap it completely around the cherry leaving the stem out. Make sure to enclose the cherry completely. Place enclosed cherries on a Silpat and refrigerator until firm.

When cherries have set, melt your chocolate. Holding onto the stems, dip each cherry into the melted chocolate coating and place back on Silpat. Once chocolate has hardened up on the cherries, place in an airtight container and let set at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks. You can eat them right away but the liquid centers will not develop for several weeks. This recipe is easy to half, if desired.

Extra perk: This fondant recipe can also be used as cake or cupcake decorations. Color with food coloring as desired, roll out and cut out decorations or mold into shapes.

Maine Gourmet Chocolate’s Peanut Brittle

2 cups white sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup light corn syrup

2 cups peanuts

2-1/2 teaspoons butter

2 teaspoons baking soda

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar, water and corn syrup. While heating, stir occasionally until temperature reaches 250 degrees (also known as soft ball stage). At this point, stir in peanuts (or other favorite nuts). Let cook without stirring until temperature reaches 275 to 280 degrees. Stir around the pan a couple times, and continue to cook (stir periodically so they do not burn) until temperature reaches 300 degrees (or hard ball stage). Remove pan from stove and add butter and baking soda. Stir quickly. The mixture will puff up — you will see it rise in the pan once the baking soda has been incorporated. Pour onto two Silpats or two greased cookie sheets; spread thin. Let cool; then break into pieces. Can be stored in an airtight container for several months. It is important not to let the brittle set out in the air as it will become sticky.

Try this: For kicked-up brittles, when you add your butter, add 1 tablespoon of your favorite hot sauce or red pepper flakes. For the salt-lover, sprinkle coarse sea salt on top once the candy is spread.

Food safety question? Ask away!

ORONO — For consumers throughout the state with questions about safe food handling and preparation, leftovers or even recipes and nutrition as the holidays approach, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension team is only a phone call away for research-based answers.

Six Extension food safety and nutrition specialists make up the call team, which can be reached by calling the nearest county Extension office or dialing a statewide toll-free number: 1-800-287-0274.

Many consumer questions can also be addressed online, where dozens of Extension publications (http://extensionpubs.umext.maine.edu/) address a multitude of topics, specialists in county offices also can answer most questions, according to Extension statewide food-safety specialist Jason Bolton. If not, the call team is standing by. Consumers can expect to receive a callback within a few hours with answers.

Questions typically include queries ranging from frozen turkey thawing tips when time is short to handling leftovers safely to whether an older Extension recipe is still safe and valid. Bolton calls the latter a good question, since changing ingredient ratios in a recipe can make food unsafe to can. Canning procedures are updated every year when results from new food preservation research are available, he says.

Kate Yerxa, the statewide Extension educator for nutrition and physical activity, says the call team also can address questions about nutrition and serving the recommended food categories from the new U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “My Plate” chart. Thanksgiving is typically a very healthy meal because of its heavy use of vegetables, and turkey is a lean protein food, she says.

The Cooperative Extension website (http://extension.umaine.edu/county-offices/) has a complete list of county offices and contact information.


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