Sweet Secrets from Portland's Best Pastry Pros

Five local dessert dreamers share tips and tricks from their sprinkle-flecked arsenals.

With Benjamin Tepler February 11, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Michael Novak

PDX’s bean-to-bar chocolate pioneer brings cacao back to basics. 

Woodblock Chocolate's Charley Wheelock

A lot of the biggest names in high-end chocolate (Fran’s, Jacque Torres, Godiva) are “remelters”—they take already-made chocolate and recast it in ornate molds or give it luxe fillings. Woodblock Chocolate’s Charley Wheelock owns his sweets from the start. The former industrial designer flies across the globe to gather beans for what he calls “Cowboy Euro Chocolate,” simple cocoa-sugar blends without any flavor additives. “We’re the opposite of ‘Big Chocolate,’” he says.

In 2010, with a desire to launch a food-focused family business and only a cursory chocolate-making class under his belt, Wheelock and his wife, Jessica, started making chocolate out of $1,000 worth of Venezuelan cacao beans using a winnower fashioned from an industrial vacuum to husk beans and a baroque 1910 peanut roaster. “We were trying to decide whether to dig a hole and age cheese for people, or enter the competitive yogurt market,” he says. “Instead, we landed on chocolate.” 

Today, the Wheelocks churn out 80,000 bars a year, on shelves in 18 states, Canada, and Japan. They’ve won the affection of both Food & Wine magazine and Vice President Joe Biden, who sampled Woodblock-speckled ice cream at Salt & Straw. The cocoa-loving couple still meticulously roasts, conches, ages, and tempers each batch of chocolate with their ad hoc system, all in a fanatical quest to capture the specific terroir of the beans in their bars. They succeed, deliciously (see left). The Wheelocks now gather four tons of the bitter beans every year from Trinidad, Peru, and Madagascar for their sought-after minimalist bars.

Charley’s zeal for chocolate is part culinary, part travel adventure. “The guy in Peru who collects beans rides his motorcycle with a brass knuckle dagger in one hand and 20 grand in his boot, ripping through the forest,” says Wheelock. “Narcos want to take him out; banditos want to steal his money. It’s just so rad!” 

Back at the tasting room in the Buckman hood, Wheelock walks visitors through his atlas of chocolates—country to country. “When people try single-origins side by side, a light comes on,” he says, “like, ‘So this is chocolate.’”

Sweet Secrets

Image: Michael Novak

Justin Woodward, chef at Castagna

The measuring cup just won’t do.

“We use metric scales to weigh all our ingredients; it’s more accurate and makes a huge difference in the quality of pastries. We use a precision digital scale for our extremely minute measurements (like xanthan and guar gums). we got it at a head shop across the street.”  


Little Bird's Carrot Popover Pastry chef Helen Jo...

shows why she’s a rising star: it takes skill, wit, and serious moxie to mash up a savory popover, carrot cake components, and ice cream sandwich longings into something absolutely irresistible. Her cardamom-singing, carrot-juiced pastry—served oven-warm with lovely crust and chew—cradles tangy cream cheese ice cream, the whole thing positioned on a runway of chopped nuts, fresh pistachio paste, and kumquats.

Kyra Bussanich, owner of Kyra's Bake Shop

It’s all about that (gluten-free) flour.

“We make our flour blends in house—millet and sweet rice flour for nutty crunch in scones and cookies, or tapioca and potato starch for springy, moist cakes. We use all Bob’s Red Mill products—local and awesome. ”  


Kir Jensen, owner of the Sugar Cube (now closed)

I love browned butter.

“A trick: I use browned butter a lot, which imparts depth and flavor in treats without using nuts. That’s a secret weapon of mine. That shit is magic.” 

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