Chocolate's rich, dark history dates back 2,000 years according to historians, but visitors to Key Largo are discovering a newfound love of cocoa confections thanks to the talents of Kristie Thomas. As well as being the culinary creator behind Key Largo Chocolates, currently she is the only chocolatier in the Florida Keys.
Thomas has taken her passion for baking Key lime cakes and crafting chocolate shells into a creative niche for truffles, each handmade from natural ingredients including the best chocolate from around the globe.
Much of the world's cacao comes from areas within 20 degrees of the equator, said Thomas, who added that one of her favorite cacao products is Machu Picchu from Peru.
Thomas' husband Bob oversees the company's marketing, handling custom orders and special events. He refers to his wife's superbly sweet talents as having "panache with ganache."
A year ago, Key Largo Chocolates, a storefront located at mile marker 100.4 bayside, was spurred on from Thomas' success with her first love — Key lime cakes. Not a professional baker, she attended cake school for cake design and decorating, and dabbled in making her daughter's Key lime wedding cake in addition to decorative and delectable chocolate seashells.
At a flavor university, Thomas trained among researchers for Kellogg's, Quaker Oats and candy companies to detect flavor notes and tastes. That training helped develop her ability to balance the cocoa with yummy additions of Ké Ké Key Lime Liquor, bourbon, whiskey and secret spices.
In addition to her numerous "everyday" truffles, Thomas is planning holiday season treats that include a dizzying array of flavorful fudges, toffees and specialty barks (rough-surfaced sheets of chocolate, nuts and fruits that resemble tasty tree bark) made with peppermint, cream, pralines and hazelnuts. She even anticipates an eggnog truffle.
Her "pumpkin pie-less" spiced truffle, which recently won first place in the dessert category at the 30th annual Key Largo Cookoff, is expected to be available through the holiday season as well. However, there's no pumpkin in them — just secret spices.
The Key Largo kudo is not the only award Thomas has won. Her Key lime truffles placed second in a nationwide taste competition in Atlantic City, behind an offering from the Ruth's Kris steakhouse conglomerate.
"We're just a little chocolate company," Thomas said modestly. "We've grown in leaps and bounds, and we enter contests and festivals as often as we can to help our growth spurts."
Thomas' Key lime confections include freshly squeezed, locally grown limes. With the help of a pastry chef, she creates six- and eight-inch Key lime cakes and cupcakes in addition to rum cakes, a rapidly growing flavor favorite. Her passion for working with chocolate runs as deep.
The chocolatier says keeping the chocolate for her truffles tempered, or at a temperature ideal for its sheen and consistency, is a challenge in the humid climate of the subtropical Florida Keys since chocolate can absorb moisture.
"To make up to 300 truffles a day, the chocolate needs to be perfect," said Thomas. With air conditioning and dehumidifiers, she manages to keep her kitchen near a cool 68 degrees.
Entering the tiny but vibrant shop, visitors are greeted by a daunting display of aromatic chocolates to choose from, each a shiny melt-in-your-mouth nugget of heaven. Packaged in lovely boxes, the truffles tempt customers to sneak a sample even before they make it out the door.
In addition to the storefront, some Upper Keys hotels as well as Key Largo and Islamorada retail stores carry Key Largo Chocolates. Patrons at Key Largo restaurants might also be fortunate enough to find a mousse-filled chocolate seashell on the dessert specials menu.
No matter where her morsels are found, Thomas aims to please. She delights in the satisfied faces of her customers that testify how irresistible her creations can be.
"People like to treat themselves," she said. "People love chocolates."
Thomas is a passionate chocolatier, and makes many local appearances at Keys festivals, including the annual Key Largo Food & Wine Festival, with her truffles.
Thomas maintains a small neat-as-a-button chocolate factory that delights the senses.
Thomas has mastered how to temper her chocolate and create beautifully flavored seashells with an attractive sheen.
Thomas is planning holiday season treats that include a dizzying array of treats and truffles, and even anticipates an eggnog truffle.