Bite-Sized Luxury

Nancy Biehn smells really good.  As Chief Executive Chocolatier of Ann Arbor's Sweet Gem Confections, her person exudes a great aroma beyond her excellent personal hygiene.  Her hands are often chocolate-streaked. Her aura is sunny – to be expected in someone whose career path is directed towards enhancing the happiness of others.

While the rest of us are cubicle-bound, telephone-conferenced and email-inboxed, Biehn is dipping chocolate-nib pecan shortbread cookies in glossy well-tempered melted chocolate. 

If you leave the office now, you can be eating one within minutes:  Sweet Gem's world headquarters is located inside Morgan & York's epicurean emporium of food and drink on Packard Road just east of Stadium Boulevard.

Not a chocolate chip cookie fan?  (What kind of misguided person are you?)  There are numerous other choices, all involving locally and/or ethically sourced ingredients, all delectable.

Her work gives sugar a good name – chocolate, too.  Sweet Gem's chocolate – like its own output – is artisan-produced in small batches and has at its heart cacao beans from a single point of origin.

Biehn looks for locally based flavoring agents to complement the fine chocolate.  Truffle varieties include exotica such as balsamic vinegar with milk chocolate – an enticing milk chocolate ganache center flavored with 18-year-old balsamic vinegar, enrobed in white chocolate – or the current seasonal favorite, pumpkin pie-hazelnut-caramel. 

She's looking forward to the switchover from summer favorites (rhubarb with cardamom is retiring, as is pear with pink peppercorns) to more fall-ish flavors.

Ganache, for those who are still learning about the true nature of truffles, is a magical blend of chocolate, butter and cream, softly resistant to the bite.  It's often found at the heart of fine chocolates, the vehicle by which flavors are conveyed.

The balsamic truffle was developed with help from Matt Morgan of Morgan & York. Don't wrinkle your nose at the thought – try it first.  Balsamic vinegar is aged in sherry casks and often sweeter than the name could ever make you imagine.

Watch for the return of one truffle Biehn wishes she hadn't retired – filled with 10 Cane Rum flavored with pandan leaves infused in cream and enrobed in white chocolate. Pandan is an aromatic Asian shrub.

All of Sweet Gem's fresh produce – that's how Biehn regards her edible work – is free of preservatives and artificial ingredients of any kind. She picks the raspberries for the raspberry-Chambord truffles herself at Makielski's raspberry farm in Ypsilanti.

Such high quality doesn't come cheap – individual truffles are $2.75 each by the piece.  It nets out at $60 to $70 per pound, a staggering number unless one considers the substantial gratification purchased at the same time as the truffles.

"It could take an hour to explain the difference between my chocolates and a Hershey bar," she says.

Still, given the high cost of ingredients, Biehn says, "I'll never get rich doing this – although the business is profitable.  But I love what I do."

Michigan's economic woes haven't affected sales, she says:  "It has been so busy all of September and October!  People are buying more affordable treats, if they can't afford big things."

Bestsellers usually include whatever's new.  Raspberry truffles are a perennial favorite with customers.  Biehn prefers the Leapin' Lemon truffle.  Low-key despite its name, it's a concoction of white chocolate lemon custard ganache covered in milk chocolate. 

Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, she always loved to cook and bake.  Her chocolate epiphany came as an au pair in Oviedo, in northwestern Spain. The excellent food scene there was a revelation, she says.  The tiny Piñalba chocolate shop in Oviedo was ground zero for her future chocolate passion.

Returning stateside, she found a distinct lack of the kind of chocolates she had grown to love in Europe.  Biehn became determined to create chocolates of the same quality for herself and to give as gifts.

Eventually – as friends wanted more chocolates to give as gifts themselves – Sweet Gem Confections was born. Since its beginning in 1995, Biehn’s gradually refined the business, building her current kitchen within Morgan and York three years ago. 

 Biehn isn’t interested in being Willie Wonka, her company focuses, almost exclusively, on local customers. Still, it's grown to include two part-time staff people and sells between 800 and 1,000 truffles per month plus a plethora of other scrumptious products such as premium hot cocoa mix, chocolate coated nuts and nut toffee, handmade caramels and custom orders. At holiday peak times, neighbors and young people are recruited to roll the ganache centers and pack completed orders for shipping. 
"I realized how the cacao was grown, fermented, roasted – and how ingredients are paired with it are more important than anything else about how to make it," she says. "I've always believed in the local food movement."

Chocolate aside – the ingredient comes from far-flung locales from Papua, New Guinea to Costa Rica – Biehn uses fresh local components of the highest quality. 

Sweet Gem Confections are available at Morgan & York, Zingerman’s, online, and from Biehn in person at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Wednesdays.  Or you can order by calling 734-929-6513.

Interested in do-it-yourself?  Biehn will offer two Chocolate Making 101 workshops on tempering and dipping chocolate.

  • Wednesday, October 22 from 6:30-9 pm
  • Saturday, November 8 from 1-3 pm

Each workshop is $60; students will leave with 24 truffles.  Attendance is limited to six participants per workshop as the demonstrations are hands-on. Register online or call 734-929-6513.(734) 929-6513

Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was PORT's Street Soccer: The Ultimate Assist

Writers Note:
Dear Concentrate readers, no sacrifice is too great to ensure your edification.  I do whatever's necessary to get the chocolate-covered low-down for you, even if it means the ultimate sacrifice: eating truffles between meals.


Nancy Biehn Cutting Some Delicious Treats-Ann Arbor

Fresh Cream Caramels From Sweet Gem Confections-Ann Arbor

Chocolate Chunker-Ann Arbor

Chai Tea Truffles-Ann Arbor

A Spatula Before the Photographer Got To It-Ann Arbor

Raspberry Truffles-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.   His girlfriend seems to think he is filled with some type of nougat.

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