“A lot of people think making chocolate is the same as making chocolates,” explains Sjölinds Chocolate House co-owner Tracy Thompson as she begins to describe what she does for a living at her chocolate shop in Mt. Horeb. While the difference may be one simple letter, in reality, it’s like comparing a Kraft American Single to a bandaged cheddar. One is mass-produced, the other is handmade. Almost anyone can taste the difference.
Unlike most U.S. big-brand candy bars made from chocolate owned by Mars, Incorporated; Nestle; or Hershey Company, Sjölinds (pronounced SHOO-linds) Chocolate House makes its own chocolate. That means Tracy starts with raw cacao beans, then roasts, cracks, and winnows the beans before grinding them into a paste. The beans undergo conching—further grinding into a liquid—from anywhere between several hours to several days. Then other ingredients are added, such as milk products, sugar, vanilla, or cocoa butter. After that, the chocolate is put in sheets, and flavors develop for about 30 days. Finally, the chocolate is tempered—a process of heating and cooling that gives the chocolate the shine and snap of a handmade, high-quality chocolate bar.
“The result is a small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate that celebrates the individual bean from which it was made. Each chocolate ends up having its own personality, and that’s what makes it fun,” Tracy says.
In 2006, Tracy started making handmade chocolate at Sjölinds Chocolate House in downtown Mt. Horeb at 219 E. Main Street. What started as a romantic idea of running a little coffee and chocolate shop part-time while raising a family has blossomed into a full-time, family-run, downtown artisan chocolate and coffee shop that doubles as a bakery and café, and is today the heart of the community.
In addition, Tracy and her husband, Chris, have now brought their two daughters into the business, and this past winter, built a new Sjölinds Chocolate Factory on the east end of town at 150 Lillehammer Lane. All chocolate is now made at the factory, while the downtown shop focuses on making bakery items and serving espresso drinks, quiche, and daily lunch specials. Each member of the family sports several hats: Chris is the resident accountant, part-time baker, and staff artist—his artwork graces the walls at the downtown shop; daughters Erin and Melissa have morphed into master bakers and chocolatiers; and Tracy, a trained pastry chef who started the whole enterprise, does anything and everything in between.
“When you run a small business as a family, you rapidly learn that everyone has talents that have never been tapped,” Tracy says. “Our youngest daughter, Erin, was a ballet dancer that came back from New York to bake with mom, and in six months time, was doing it better than I ever did. Melissa, our oldest daughter, is our chocolate genius in residence. People love her behind the counter.”
With its personable service, small-town feel, and Scandinavian flair and influence, Sjölinds Chocolate House fits perfectly in Mt. Horeb, a village that traces its roots to Norway. In fact, in the 1800s more than 75 percent of the community was Norwegian. The name Sjölind comes from Tracy’s mother’s maiden name, and her daughters designed the shop’s signature logo, a Scandinavian flower that graces every package of chocolate. The flower is pressed into a wax seal that binds hand-tied twine on individual chocolate bars. The Thompsons do all the packaging themselves, by hand.
One of Sjölinds’ most popular chocolate bars is the Wisconsin Butter Chocolate. “So many people say they don’t like milk chocolate, but what they don’t like is bad milk chocolate,” Tracy says. “Instead of using all sugar, we add milk powder. It mellows out the acid in the chocolate, making it almost a dark milk chocolate. And then we replace a portion of the cocoa butter with clarified butter.”
Other chocolate bars include Gau’s Chocolate, made with a combination of cow and goat milk products; Wisconsin Milk, made with cow’s milk; and Malted Milk Chocolate, made with—you guessed it—malted milk powder. “We get to play around, and that’s what makes it fun. People are looking for unique flavors,” Tracy says.
In addition to house-made chocolate, hot chocolate mixes, and homemade marshmallows, Sjölinds Chocolate House carries a variety of chocolate bars from around the world, handmade confections, and European-style house-baked items, including chocolate walnut scones, cheese danishes, and cinnamon spirals.
Daily lunch specials include Swedish Meatballs for $6.50. The recipe comes from Tracy’s great-grandmother, Annie. Meatballs are served in cream gravy with lingonberries and limpa, a Scandinavian dark rye bread made with orange zest, anise, and fennel. Another popular lunch item is the Potato Sausage Plate. At $7.25, it includes several Swedish potato sausages, served with potato salad, pickled vegetables, and a slice of limpa. Attempting to finish everything on the plate may exude an “Uff da” from customers.
Finnish savory pies are also popular. For $5.95, customers have their choice of beef with mushrooms and onions; sausage with potatoes, onions, and prunes; or vegetable, with cream cheese, cabbage, mushrooms, onions, and an egg. While waiting for lunch to be served, customers can order a coffee, espresso, or latte, and either chat with their neighbors in the big front community room or work at a laptop in quiet, smaller rooms in back. A room at the far end of the downtown shop is kid and family friendly, with a glass door that is often closed by mothers so their children don’t escape.
Tracy reflects, “When we built Sjölinds, we thought we were just building a chocolate shop. But we grew into a bakery, café, and coffee shop because that was what the community wanted and needed. And now, the community supports our passion for making good chocolate. It’s become a win-win for our family and Mt. Horeb.”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.