Last month, I was hovering in Mark Sciscenti's workshop, spellbound and drifting off on a cloud of citrus. Pots of fat orange and lemon peels sat caramelizing over the stove, releasing wisps of scented steam that curled thickly into the air around us.
Sciscenti just returned from a pediatricians' conference in New York City, where he lectured on how to beneficially incorporate chocolate into children's diets. When I ask him what his favorite way to enjoy chocolate was when he was a kid, he dismisses my suggestions of various candy bars and gestures to his collection of elixirs.
"I loved chocolate milk," he says. "And my favorite way to enjoy chocolate is still to drink it."
Sciscenti, part Wonka wizard, part culinary historian, brings the same quiet precision to all his comments. He tells me about his legendary Christmas stollen—adapted from both traditional and non-traditional techniques—which he makes with spelt flour, ricotta, roasted almonds, eggs, honey, six different kinds of rum-soaked dried and candied fruits, spices and aromatics. A mass of dough is rolled around marzipan Sciscenti makes himself with agave and whole roasted almonds. The resulting loaves are brushed four times throughout the rising and baking processes with melted butter, then dusted with powdered sugar. Each batch of dough makes nine ($35, approximately 1½ pounds) large breads or eighteen small ones ($25, ¾ pound).
All of Sciscenti's seasonal pies can be ordered whole ($25, except for mincemeat, which is $35) or by the slice, when available. Sciscenti's mincemeat is based, like many of his recipes, on Old World principles; in this case, it's a 350-year-old English recipe that calls for rosewater, orange flower water, muscatel, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and sherry, and is modified by substituting a butter crust for the more traditional beef suet.
He says, "The amount of fat in those old recipes would boggle your mind, but what now passes for mincemeat is unacceptable." Thus, he adheres to his preference for a rich, gamy, highly spiced mincemeat using whatever parts of an elk he can get his hands on.
"Right now, all I can get is ground elk," he says sadly, but I take comfort in believing that the right batch of offal is just around the corner.
Upon my first visit to Kakawa, I admit that I was miffed by the exclusively gluten-free pastries and mostly dairy-free drinks. I love gluten and dairy, and because I didn't know Sciscenti from Adam, it was easy to be inwardly snide about his agenda; I had been hoping for chocolate, dagnabbit, not an education. After a second and third visit, however, I humbly slink off my soapbox and to a corner where I can drink my French 1692 elixir in perfumed peace. I finally begin to understand just what he is up to, and I need some time and cake in order to absorb the full gravity of his mission.
Sciscenti, who can wax poetic on the history and origin of chocolate, is also exacting and uncompromising about the standards he keeps for his own: "I can't serve coffee here. The aromas from the beans would destroy my chocolate. I've had chocolate taste like everything—mold, burlap, burnt rubber."
Like a schoolchild, I take notes, hoping to be rewarded with more chocolate. "I wish this were the sort of place I could come everyday," I think, sipping my tiny, expensive thimbleful of liquid bliss.
"If someone wants whipped cream in their hot chocolate," Sciscenti says, "I'll tell them that I don't think it's necessary, but if they really want it, I'll just go whip some by hand with some vanilla and agave."
This is someone who cares deeply about the purity of form. His use of alternative grains runs the gamut from mesquite, millet, amaranth, spelt and quinoa to barley, rice, tapioca, potato starch, buckwheat and teff, playing them off one another to find the best textures and flavors, and he does the same with sweeteners and milk substitutes. "Dairy fat coats the tongue and taste buds, plus it makes the health benefits of chocolate less bioavailable," Sciscenti says, appealing to the hedonist and the nutritionist in me in equal measure.
Sciscenti's chocolate truffles look more like their namesake than most; they're matte-finished, dark like coal and bitterly intense. As my eyes dance over the savory truffles on display, such as gorgonzola cheese and wild boar bacon, I ask if there any combinations that he feels just don't work. "Grand Marnier. Bananas. No capers, anchovies or garlic," he says.
For purists who prefer less challenging flavors, try Sciscenti's American elixir or the wonderful chocolate fudge sauce available to go ($9.95, half pint). "I want people to be happy with what they get," Sciscenti emphasizes, happy to offer samples of every elixir on the menu if that's what it takes to get there, here, the end of the rainbow and the little pot of chocolate that awaits.
This winter, Sciscenti offers two Sunday morning classes ($38) in gluten-free holiday baking; the first, on Dec. 7, focuses on pies and the second, on Dec. 14, on cakes and tortes. If you're stumped on a gift for the chocolate lover in your life, consider booking a two-hour personalized session of truffle making with Sciscenti ($70 for one, $50 for each additional participant). Contact Mark with questions or for information.
Kakawa Chocolate House
1050 Paseo de Peralta
10 am-6 pm, Friday-Saturday 10 am-8 pm and Sunday 11 am-6 pm