Update: Hudson Chocolates has now closed.
I can vividly recall the first time I tried one of Francisco Migoya's desserts. It was spring 2011 and he was being honored as one of the top 10 pastry chefs in the US. He brought over 200 of his Black Forest Cake Pops to the event, which featured elements of black forest cake inside a classic popsicle shape. This creation required the successful execution of a number of advanced pastry techniques. But as good as the "pops" tasted, it was their beautiful presentation that impressed me most. Black Forest cake is an old-school dessert, but with their striking lime green shell and carefully applied white chocolate stripes, these pops looked liked something out of the Museum of Modern Art.
The pops were beautiful enough on their own, but Migoya went further by considering the most artful way to distribute the 200 desserts to attendees. He laid out the pops like miniature trees, so that they created a symmetrical green table-top forest. The combination of dessert and presentation offered a perfect example of one of Migoya's trademarks: the blend of exacting pastry techniques with a sculptor's eye for aesthetics. These are all traits that have served him well on the faculty of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and as the author of three influential books on pastry.
Fast forward to 2013 and the launch of Migoya's Hudson Chocolates. After viewing the collections in person, I can attest that the bold creativity, striking innovation, and exacting precision are all still there. But it's clear there has been a shift. Now, there is much more emphasis on the art and the sculptured elements, even at the expense of some of Migoya's trademark uniformity.
The colorful, uniform pieces of his Mix and Macs collection look like each could have been cut using lasers. But each sculpture-like Honeycomb Bar is executed uniquely, as are the Hudson Valley Mountain Range showpieces. The Espresso Bar is a kind of homage to Richard Serra, one of Migoya's favorite sculptors. To those who have seen Migoya meticulously pipe glaze onto an eclair with the focus of a surgeon, this was a surprising switch.
Was this just a natural progression in a career that has already seen many stages? Or was this a conscious move to a more organic and art focused style? To find out what drove this change, I ventured north with my wife in a borrowed 2014 Buick LaCrosse to spend the afternoon with Migoya in Poughkeepsie.
Prior to the interview, Migoya spent an hour taking me through all of Hudson's chocolate lines. Remarkably, everyone who visits gets a similar tour from Migoya or one of his team members. One of the first things Migoya told me is that he is passionate to impart what's special about his creations, and wishes he could do so with every customer in person.
For those who can't get a taste of Migoya's creations in person, the following is my conversation with this artist of chocolate. The dialog has been edited for length and clarity:
Many of the offerings here feature organic shapes inspired by nature, like the honeycomb and bone. Is this a departure for you from the highly technical pastry you're known for? For me, not too many years ago, everything had to be the same, straight, like a machine made it. And for many things that's important. But for certain things it's also important to have that organic component. And that can be just as beautiful too, and delicious. I realized I had to avoid creating these personal blocks from within.
But this shift from ultra precise technique and attention to detail [see: the famous eclair shot] to these more organic forms, is that just part of the creative process? If you look at Picasso—and I'm not comparing myself to Picasso at all!—but he could draw a human figure perfectly. Once he knew how to do that he started looking at other ways to express his art, but he has those chops [and that foundation]. And you know what? Maybe in three years, I'll tell you, let's go back to straight and even! I'm done with this organic crap. Let's go back to doing everything streamlined, with a machine made style. But right now this is what I want to do. But it's OK to change your mind. I need to know that, always. Maybe in 5 years I'll say, "What was I thinking?", but that's OK.
Getting back to the organic shapes, some of the most striking shapes, like the bone or honeycomb, look like they're made with molds. Can you tell me about them? We make all of those molds in house. For the bone mold I bought some real bones from a Hudson Valley butcher and asked him to split them in half. We cast this mold from silicon. Inside is half blood orange ganache and half almond nougatine. For the Honeycomb, we don't really use a mold. It's more free form. The Honeycomb is really a classic American confection. It's caramelized sugar that we add some toasted peanuts to and then some baking soda for the expansion. Then we enrobe it in dark chocolate. What gives it the honeycomb pattern are oven mitts that I found on Amazon that had the honeycomb texture on the outside.
That seems like a very labor intensive process. After the butcher split the bones for us, it still took a number of weeks to get them free from all the organic matter and properly cleaned. You can buy the mold from XYZ company. But what happens if you don't want to make chocolate in that shape? You have to go to that creative side, where you determine what shape you want. That's why we make our own molds here.
Now let's talk about some of your process on the flavor side. Tell me about the Swarnadwipa Bar. It's a dark chocolate bar with an Indian spice mix called Swarnadwipa. Basically, it's a curry. We were hesitant to call it curry because people instantly think of chicken curry but in India, curry is any spice mix. This spice mix is lemongrass, coconut, kefir, lime, galangal and smoked paprika—kind of a roller coaster of different flavors.
That's a very complex flavor profile. How did you come to that flavor? This was a bit of a collaboration with Fanny Setiyo from Le Sanctuaire in San Francsico (provider of specialty ingredients). She is an expert on spices, and I reached out to her and said I am looking for something that has this flavor profile and and want to combine it with dark chocolate—what suggestions do you have? She gave me a list of 10 different mixes that she makes. When I was reading them, some made sense, some sounded super interesting.
In terms of the tablets or bars, how do you decide what a certain piece should taste like? Do you just get an idea in your head? When we're coming up with the tablets with the mixtures, we think about what is going to work and what is not going to work.
Take the Birthday Cake Bar. This is something I owe to Thomas Keller. (Ed. note: Migoya was executive pastry chef of Keller's The French Laundry prior to becoming a faculty member of the CIA.) The idea is that when you taste something, if you're calling it a "birthday cake bar", it needs to have that immediate connection—not [just] by reading the name, but by tasting it. When you taste it, you say, "Well that tastes just like birthday cake."
So we have to make sure that the flavors we are putting in match that point of reference in your mind—that this is birthday cake! So we bake an actual vanilla cake, dry it out, and then put it into a melanger. We take cocoa butter, cake crumbs, a tiny bit of sugar (because the cake is sweet), and we grind it for 24 hours, down to 0.19 microns. At the end, you have this liquid that is almost like white chocolate. We temper it the same way, it hardens the same way.
When you taste it, it's a "chocolate cake." We have used this process with many things. We're actually working on a Toasted Bread bar. Our Gingerbread Cookie bar uses the same process and our Coffee and Doughnuts in the Holiday Truffle Collection follows a similar philosophy.
Now what about the Chicharon? This is probably the most organic and uneven shape in your shop (and maybe the most off-the-charts delicious thing I ate in 2013)? In Poughkeepsie we have very good chicharron; dried pork skin that's been deep fried. We cut it evenly to the best of our abilities but it's a very organic shape. The Chicharron does not have any water in it, unlike bacon, so it doesn't go stale or rancid. Plus, it has that porky, salty goodness that we then coat in 68% dark chocolate and then we sprinkle fleur de sel and chipotle powder on top so it's smoky and salty. The Chicharron has something of an identity crisis—it's not really a dessert, it's something that you snack on.
Can you tell me about the Hudson Chocolate packaging? Is there story or thought process behind it? When you open and close the packaging, on the bars for example, [the red line that get's broken and then reattached] is the Hudson river. One end is New York City and the other is Albany. We're right in the middle. We try to get the notion of the Hudson Valley to translate into everything we do here.
On our drive back to New York City—after picking out a few items to give as gifts—I considered how lucky I was to have caught Migoya at this point in his career. Whether it's just an intermediate step or a new, more permanent direction for him is anyone's guess.
Editor's note: This visit was made possible by a loaner car from Buick. However, the rest of the article is purely from Serious Eats editorial.
About the author: Native New Yorker Niko Triantafillou is the founder of DessertBuzz.com his photographs of desserts and pastry chefs have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Dessert Professional Magazine. He is an unabashed foodie nerdling. Follow him on Twitter at @DessertBuzz.