Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe

A Day in a Life Full of Chocolate

Story and photos by Anita Chu

It’s five-thirty in the morning and the storefronts on College Avenue in Rockridge are dark and quiet, but the kitchen in the back of Bittersweet Chocolate Café is glowing with life. For the next three hours, all the pastries that will be sold today in the Bittersweet stores will be baked and either packaged for a quick delivery to the Fillmore branch in San Francisco or plated up for the display case in the Rockridge store.

As one of Bittersweet’s bakers, I help bake the chocolate chip cookies, the pear ginger muffins, the chocolate cupcakes, the cherry scones, the shortbread, and the coconut macaroons. We fill up boxes with still-warm goodies intended for Fillmore and take them out to the front of the store for the waiting delivery driver, walking past rows of chocolate bars from across the globe lined up on the shelves, traversing countries with every step.

From the name Bittersweet Chocolate Café, people know to expect chocolate when they visit, yet still they are surprised at how many forms of chocolate greet them when they enter. Over 120 varieties of chocolate bars from around the world, representing an entire spectrum of flavor, vie for the visitor’s taste. Then there are the dozens of molded chocolates and truffles in the display case, along with all of our freshly made chocolate-filled pastries, from cinnamon hot chocolate cake to brownies to macaroons. Finally, there are Bittersweet’s signature drinks scrawled enticingly on the menu board, from classic hot chocolate to the peppery, chili-laced Spicy.

Bittersweet is the happy brainchild of four chocolate lovers who, unable to find their favorite chocolates in Rockridge, decided to create them for themselves. Together, Penelope Finnie, Seneca Klassen, and Beth and Bonnie Rostan opened Bittersweet in 2005 and filled it with the chocolates they had discovered and loved on their travels around the world.

The selection, as Klassen explains, is not meant to be inclusive, but to reflect a range of makers and flavors, as well as the owners’ personal favorites. One of Klassen’s more enviable tasks was to hold many chocolate tastings at his home to decide which ones would make the cut and appear in the store. To catalog the selections and help overwhelmed visitors, Klassen has also created the “Bittersweet Bible,” which is a listing of all the bars with tasting notes for each, much like guides for wine. Whether you prefer fruity overtones in your chocolate or want to find one that tastes of anise or tobacco, you will find a suggestion in the bible.

“I find that the public has been very eager to learn more about chocolate, and that’s why we’re here—to educate them,” Klassen says. Many customers linger, poring over the bars, questioning the baristas about which one they should choose. This outpouring of interest and enthusiasm led Klassen to set up a series of chocolate tasting seminars, held in the café, which are designed to introduce people to the concepts and nuances of tasting fine chocolates.

The menu of chocolate-themed drinks is also the work of Klassen, who wanted the store to encompass the entire range of ways to experience chocolate. All of the drinks are made from special blends of premium chocolates, mixed with spices or infused with tea. Klassen confesses that he longed to sell a version of the original chocolate drink, invented by the ancient Maya—a concoction of chocolate, chilies, and cornmeal—but it received only a lukewarm reception at his tastings. Perhaps it was just a little too exotic for today’s preferences. His other drinks, though, have proven so successful that the pastry kitchen finds itself making new batches of the drinks nearly every day, and the store sells dry mix versions of the drinks in canisters for the truly addicted to enjoy at home.

Once the café had been set up to sell chocolate drinks and chocolate bars, it was a natural next step to create in-house pastries that showcased fine chocolate. Many of the recipes, like the signature cinnamon hot chocolate cake, were based on childhood favorites of the owners. A generous slab of moist, dark cake covered with a layer of creamy frosting, liberally laced with cinnamon, this cake is a popular accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea. Earlier this year, pastry chef Caroline Romanski was brought in to further expand the product line, and now she will offer even more sweet and seasonal items. For the Christmas holiday season, Caroline created a pumpkin cheesecake, cranberry pâte de fruit, ginger scones, and vanilla bean caramels.

All of which keeps the pastry kitchen at a constant busy hum. After the morning bakeoff rush, we address the task list for the day. Depending on which items from our menu of about 25 are running low, we spend the rest of the morning baking and replenishing our stock. Several items have earned regular spots on the schedule: Wednesdays, for example, are croissant days, when we start the dough for the butter croissants and pains au chocolat. It takes several days from when the dough is first kneaded in the large Hobart to when it is cut and shaped into the familiar crescents and rectangles. Therefore, it is essential that we make a new batch at the same time every week or we would inevitably run out. The scraps from the croissant dough are used to make the popular weekend rolls, Bittersweet’s version of the cinnamon roll, filled with brown sugar, pecans, and golden raisins. Mondays and Thursdays are chocolate shortbread days, when we bake dozens of the little turbinado sugar-coated cookies to be wrapped and packaged in Bittersweet’s green bags. Sundays are macaroon days, when those French delicacies of almond, powdered sugar, and egg white are piped and baked into perfect little rounds for sandwiching a dollop of chocolate ganache.

Of course, working with all kinds of premium gourmet chocolates is one of the biggest thrills in the kitchen. Any visitor to the store can peek into the kitchen and see rows of neatly labeled Cambros on the shelves, filled with chocolates in a variety of percentages and makes. For home bakers who wonder whether using different chocolates makes a discernable difference in the final product, the answer is: it does. Switching the brand of chocolate used in the cinnamon hot chocolate cake during a test run gave it an entirely different flavor. In the end though, just as with chocolate bars, it comes down to personal preference. There is no single ideal chocolate for eating or baking, only the ones that are best suited to your taste—or, in Bittersweet’s case, our customers’ taste. After numerous queries from customers about the chocolates used in the kitchen, the owners started packaging chocolate “buttons” for sale in one-pound bags; test them out for yourself.

By one-thirty in the afternoon, the kitchen is winding down: the baking done for the day, cakes and brownies cooling on the racks, pans and tools cleaned and put away, task list drawn up for the next busy day. The café, however, has just gotten past the morning rush and is still awaiting its influx of afternoon customers wanting a teatime snack or a chocolate bar and evening strollers looking for dessert and coffee after dinner. As I finish cleaning up the kitchen, I look out into the store and see people poring over the truffles and candies, their children with hands pressed to the display case, exclaiming over the miniature cupcakes or baby chocolate chip cookies, everyone smiling and abuzz in the presence of so much chocolate. I can go home knowing that all the pastries I’ve made today are still in the store, waiting to give pleasure to everyone who enters. How could the day end on a sweeter note?

Editor’s note: Under new ownership for the past five years, the original Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe at 5427 College Avenue, Oakland, is now called The Chocolate Dragon Bittersweet Cafe & Bakery.


Chocolate Shortbread

Photo by Anita Chu

Recipe courtesy of Caroline Romanski

Makes about 60 cookies

1 ⅔ cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons Valrhona cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 ¼ soft unsalted butter
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
About 2 egg yolks for egg wash
Turbinado sugar for coating

Sift together flour, cocoa powder, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside. In a mixing bowl with paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar and vanilla extract just until combined—do not overbeat.

Gradually and on low speed, add the sifted flour mixture. Mix to form a smooth dough. Divide dough into two pieces and roll into logs about 15” long. Wrap the logs in plastic or parchment paper and refrigerate until firm. The dough can be stored in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

Preheat oven to 300°. Remove a log of dough from refrigerator and let sit for about 10 minutes at room temperature to soften slightly. If you only intend to bake part of the log, cut off the appropriate portion and return the rest to the refrigerator.

Make an egg wash by combining 2 egg yolks with a little bit of water. Brush over the entire surface of the log and then sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Cut the log into ½” slices and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for about 8-12 minutes, or until you can gently lift the cookies off the paper without them breaking.

Cool completely before serving.