Artful chocolate (and other treasures) pop up at AAM |

Artful chocolate (and other treasures) pop up at AAM


What: Cocoa Tree Chocolates pop-up

Where: Aspen Art Museum Shop

When: Through Feb. 16

More info:;

All day: Build-your-own floral bouquet, AAM Shop

3-5 p.m.: Chocolate tasting and complimentary Champagne

5:30: Mark Nussmeier performance, SO Café

6:30: “This Is Love” film screening, SO Café

8:30: “This is Love” Q&A

Film RSVP:

Life is like a box of chocolates: Meant to spark appreciation for its unique elements yet above all be experienced. Life isn’t meant to sit on a shelf for admiring from afar, and fine cocoa confections aren’t, either.

This philosophy guides Abby Mandel, who launched Cocoa Tree Chocolates from her home in Carbondale in September. Mandel sources the highest-quality ingredients she can find, such as French Valrhona and Belgian Callebaut chocolate, much of it single-origin, plus organic spices and dairy. In summertime she picks garden herbs and fruit from trees dotting her property to create custom infusions and jams.

After blending these components and layering mixtures into molds with a scientist’s precision, Mandel hand-paints each smooth-surface truffle with brightly colored cocoa butter using tools ranging from a tiny paintbrush to an airbrush spray gun. As a one-woman operation, Mandel turns out about 1,500 chocolate truffles per week. Now, having converted her family’s home basement into a full-blown commercial kitchen just weeks ago, she is scouting a production assistant to take Cocoa Tree to the next level.

“I feel like we’re going through a chocolate revolution now as we did with coffee,” says Mandel, whose goal is to change the way locals perceive chocolate. “Some people expect that chocolate can sit there for months and months and months. These are fresh products good for three weeks, and you should eat them in that time.”

Mandel’s dedication to the craft of chocolate is driven by a lifelong love of baking desserts as well as extensive training in the fields of taste perception, food science and neurobiology. After earning a PhD in nutrition science from Cornell University, Mandel entered the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, one of the most renowned taste research institutes in the world. There she studied how proteins in saliva affect taste and texture perception.

Her main takeaway: everyone experiences food differently.

“It is totally individual,” Mandell marvels. “When we talk about taste it just applies to a person’s perception of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami — and possibly fat and starch (two other possible tastes being researched). When we talk about flavor, that’s taste and smell together. All of these things can be influenced by a person’s diet, age, if they’re taking any medication, how healthy they are (disease and medicine can both obliterate a sense of taste or smell), genetics.”

Such disparity is why Mandel calls on a panel of trusted confidants in honing Cocoa Tree’s textural flavors, which range from coconut-passion fruit with toothsome bits of shredded coconut to toasted sesame with a layer of crystalized ginger. Sachertorte replicates flavors of the classic Austrian dessert with homemade almond marzipan, raspberry jam and dark chocolate ganache. Five-Spice Hazelnut Crunch includes feuilletine cookies embedded in a wonderfully crunchy base layer. Mandel’s personal pick, A Light in the Dark, blends brown-sugar, brown-butter caramel with 72% single-origin dark chocolate ganache. Grasshopper, meanwhile, is a silky, sweet, herbal bomb: white chocolate ganache steeped with fresh garden mint and coated in dark chocolate spiked with coconut oil for the ultimate “melty” effect.

Aspenites can sample Cocoa Tree Chocolates during a special truffle tasting hosted by Mandel on Feb. 13 from 3 to 5 p.m., part of her company’s weeklong rendezvous at the Aspen Art Museum Shop. (The engagement follows a successful Cocoa Tree pop-up at The Launchpad in Carbondale.) Boxes of handcrafted truffles will be available for purchase all week.

Mandel’s chocolate tasting joins a vibrant list of programing at AAM from Feb. 11 to 16, “a weeklong celebration of love in honor of Valentine’s Day,” says newly appointed communications director KristinAnn Janishefski. Thursday, Feb. 13, is packed with treats for visitors: a build-your-own flower bouquet service at the Shop beginning at 10 a.m. (where a curated selection of gifts including ceramics, jewelry and handmade greeting cards also are available for purchase); a performance by one-man-band Mark Nussmeier at 5:30 p.m.; and a 6:30 p.m. screening of “This Is Love,” a music documentary exploring the life of “unseen guru” and “unsung hero of soul” Rudy Love, followed by a Q&A with director John Alexander and producer JC Crew.

Janishefski calls the Valentine’s Day week programming, “interactive, accessible and inclusive for all,” whether partnered up or flying solo. All of it pairs perfectly with AAM’s current exhibition by Yayoi Kusama, “Where the Lights in My Heart Go,” showcasing one of the artist’s iconic infinity mirror rooms (through May 10), as well as a new exhibition opening in three AAM galleries on Sunday, Feb. 16. “Wilderness” features nearly 50 lush works by renowned American painter Lisa Yuskavage in collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Just as AAM curators urge viewers to consider art with an open mind and ponder themes beneath the surface, Mandel hopes that tasters will slow down and savor Cocoa Tree Chocolates.

“Focus on the crunch from the chocolate, the creaminess of the ganache, and how it all interplays together — the experience of eating it, more than just popping it into your mouth,” Mandel urges. “It’s such a decadent, delicious thing … to give to one another.”

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