The details are the first thing you notice about the colorful bonbons that seem to pop out of their trays at Aurora Grace, a confection shop and bakery that opened two weeks ago at 517 S. Fifth St. in Society Hill.
There’s one that is a deep magenta with white polka dots, enveloping dulce de leche and caramelized white chocolate. Another is brown and white swirl housing maple caramel and olive oil. One is orange speckled with brown and white, indicating pumpkin caramel with gingersnap crunch.
They’re hand-painted. Inside, the creamy fillings are meticulously layered, creating a self-contained dessert encased in a shiny rounded shell.
Though owner Aurora Wold and her crew bake granola, macarons, cookies, scones, savory galettes, cupcakes, breads, and pies, it seems everyone stops in for bonbons, packed in gift boxes, not cheap at $3 apiece.
Wold, 24, daughter of two scientists (a bioelectrical engineer who develops eye implants for the blind and a biochemist who also is a freelance artist), grew up in Upstate New York, working in a restaurant. After high school, she moved to Burlington, Vt., with the idea of becoming a Vermonter to qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Vermont to study forensic anthropology.
But by then, she says, she had fallen in love with pastry. She set out for New York City, where, barely out of her teens, her quick career path landed her at some of the top restaurants in Manhattan, including Jean-Georges and Eleven Madison Park. When her fiance got a job with Comcast, the couple moved to Philadelphia. Wold, facing a dearth of pastry chef jobs here, opened an Etsy store to sell her chocolates online. She also set up at farmers' markets.
Wait. Where is the fancy cooking school in your background?
I just picked up a cookbook and figured it out. My grandmother and my parents taught me the fundamentals of how to cook and bake, but I would say YouTube was actually the foundation of my education. You can learn anything off the internet. There’s a YouTube video out there for everything. How to make a Swiss meringue butter cream? There’s a video for it. It was just one thing after another with that. I’m like, I want to learn this now and then we’re going to do that and then we’re going to perfect it and get really good at it.
I know I’m not the only chocolatier in the city, so I need to find a way to really distinguish my work. I’ve just started taking my classes, as well. I really want to fine-tune it now. Obviously, we’re taking the business seriously. I really wanted to fine-tune it, so I did take a class with a master chocolatier.
What made you move from Burlington, Vt., to New York?
I met my now-fiance on Chatroulette [a video app where people chat with strangers]. At the time, he was living in Dallas and I was living in Burlington. It was completely random. We just got connected one day. I’m just like, “Hey, that looks like a Buffalo Bills blanket behind you.” He’s from Buffalo originally. We ended up hitting it off and chatting and stayed connected. Then, after about six months of just talking, we were both home for the holidays seeing our parents: Ithaca and Buffalo are two hours away from each other. We totally hit it off and we’re like, “OK, we’re in this. We’re doing it.” We did the long-distance thing for about six months. Then we chose to move.
How did the Etsy store start?
It was after I got to Philly, the end of 2017. One of my former colleagues connected me to Tod Wentz, who owns Townsend [in South Philadelphia]. Tod at the time was looking for a pastry chef to design his pastry program. I worked with him for about six months.
By then, I had bought some molds and bought some chocolate. I wanted just an online store but completely legit because I was hoping it would be a nice little side hustle. What I didn’t realize was how popular it was going to be. Just to even do a little online chocolate shop, you do need a license. I ended up getting my apartment certified by the Department of Agriculture. The license for the Etsy shop allowed me to do farmers’ markets and events and also wholesale. It all culminated in us having a 20-quart mixer in our living room.
Why open the retail shop, then?
We needed a production space. I was renting commercial kitchens and I did actually for a period of a couple of months while I was wholesaling with DiBruno’s. It ended up being too much, too soon. It was still just me doing the baking, the markets, the production, and waking up at 5:30 in the morning to go deliver everything. After a couple of months, I was just like, “We’re going to have to put a pin in this for a while.”
I was renting a kitchen, but for that rent I could lease an entire storefront for the same amount and have my actual own kitchen. I decided to invest some more into keeping the business in my apartment until we got to the storefront.
Now that you’re in the storefront, what’s in your apartment now?
Nothing. There’s a futon and our bed and a tiny, tiny dining table and a lot of empty space.
Tell us about the chocolates. Get as geeky as you want.
They’re individually painted. I mean, literally taking a paintbrush and going there with the molds. We use colored cocoa butter. They’re crafted out of polycarbonate plastic molds, so they get painted in with tempered cocoa butter. Tempering means it has to be a proper temperature when you’re applying it. Tempered cocoa butter is used to paint the molds and then they’re cast with 62 percent dark chocolate from Valrhona. The shell goes around the bonbon. Then there are also the different flavors of chocolate ganache. Each of them are kind of like a self-contained dessert. There’s multiple components inside of each one.
Chocolate is an animal.
I say that because people talk about bread being alive and yeast being alive. I say chocolate is just as alive, because it’s such an intricate crystalline structure. It’s composed of A crystals and B crystals. When you’re tempering chocolate, what you’re tempering is the cocoa butter content in the chocolate, so really you’re tempering cocoa butter. What you want to do is line up the A crystals, which are your good crystals, to make sure that your B crystals are underneath them so that you have this perfectly locked-in crystalline structure.
You have to completely melt it down before you can realign the crystals. The whole process of tempering it is you have to bring it to a specific temperature, take it down, and then bring it back up to your working temperature. I just say it’s an animal because to control that you really only have, and depending on what kind of couverture you’re using, really maybe 2 to 3 degrees in which you have a working temperature. If it falls out of that, then you have to start over.
You’ve had a little taste of the retail life. What’s it like dealing with people?
I love it. That’s probably one of my favorite parts of owning the business and getting to do the farmers’ markets as well. For so many years working in kitchens, I’ve always gotten stuffed back in the kitchen and I didn’t get to talk to anybody and I never get to see their reaction and see the end part of where people actually enjoy the food. You get disconnected from it. Yesterday, we were in here and people are just like, “Oh, my god. That was the best macaron I’ve ever had” and I’m like, “Thank you.” That makes the 20-hour days worth it.
Do you have a long-term plan here?
No. I’m 24.