PHOTO BY TIM MANTOANI
t’s a rare rainy San Diego day, and that’s not sitting well with Diolinda Monteiro. The rosemary caramels she’s planned to make in her remodeled kitchen in San Diego’s hip Kensington neighborhood may not turn out exactly right in this weather.
“It’s not a caramel-friendly day,” she says. “They just won’t set up.”
But there are plenty of other sweets that will turn out perfectly. With a tempering machine whirring in the background, Monteiro methodically moves from tangerine ganache for a truffle to lemon fondant, then back to those pesky caramels.
Monteiro’s business philosophy for Diolinda’s Chocolates is simple: use the best organic, fair-trade ingredients she can find.
“I don’t like to compromise when it comes to ingredients.”
That’s why she continually experiments, thinking about the sources of her chocolate or seeking out California-grown walnuts, always keeping in mind what’s involved in producing the final product.
While she also uses a commercial kitchen for her business, “I do all my best thinking and testing here,” she says of her home’s mint-green and granite kitchen. “Sometimes I wake up at night and think of a new pairing.”
Indeed, the rosemary caramel was one such late-night creation.
Another inspired concoction was the Douglas fir caramel she made for the contractor that worked on her family’s 1935-built home for the better part of a year.
“That’s so much fun, to say, ‘I know Leonard’s a contractor, so I’m going to make him something out of wood.’”
For years after earning her biology degree in 1993, Monteiro never left the USD campus. She got her master’s, then taught part time in biology and eventually became director of the McNair Scholars program.
“It was just such a family,” she says. “I had such a great experience and education there.”
But in 2007, Monteiro decided it was time to make a go at her passion, and Diolinda’s Chocolates was born — her first job outside USD.
She’s not out to be the next Godiva or even Chuao Chocolatier. She sees herself as a private food artist who can develop personal relationships and be deliberative about her chocolate.
And when it comes to chocolate, “I see it as something that is uplifting. I enjoy it as something to eat when I’m celebrating and as something to eat when I’m sad. I don’t like the idea of just sitting down to a pound of chocolate and just consuming it. I like to really enjoy it.”
She also has the patience to craft each piece she makes with love. A woman at a cooking store once told her not to go to the bother of making her own fondant, but that’s not the kind of candy-maker Monteiro is.
“It’s so much fun,” Monteiro says, pulling and swirling and scraping at a hot, sugary fondant mixture for more than 10 minutes. The mixture will go back to the stove — not too much heat, or all that pulling and scraping will have been wasted — and flavored with six drops of lemon oil. The result of all this candy crafting is a lovely, melt-in-your-mouth, sweet-lemony drop unlike any store-bought fondant.
Her science background lets her exercise a love of the chemistry of her creations and helps her keep environmental concerns front and center when thinking about ingredients. And the scientist in her stokes the ritual of faithfully recording the details of each concoction in her kitchen lab notebook. The chocolate-stained pages bear notes like, “texture & flavor are perfect” for her vegan banana mocha chocolates or “ganache is a bit stiff” for another entry.
And it’s that notebook she can refer to if, say, a set of caramels she’s made turn out to be pralines: Was the culprit a rogue boiling point or the ingredients?
But on this day, it will be the rain that’s to blame. As she pours the melted caramel into a frame, she releases a creamy, sugary rosemary scent into the air. A later taste of the gooey mixture reveals an inspired flavor.
Given her petite build, Monteiro takes some ribbing as a chocolate-maker. “I don’t eat a whole lot of it; I’m constantly tasting, but it’s not a gorge-fest.”
And truly, the tasting is continual, as Monteiro perfects each decadent chocolate piece. Again reflecting that inner-scientist, Monteiro says, “I think it’s silly to stay with something and not experiment.”
Sometimes a recipe will call for corn syrup and white table sugar, but those are not the ingredients of choice for Monteiro. So her science background helps her figure out how to achieve the desired taste and consistency using, say, honey and evaporated cane juice instead.
“The chemistry is really neat and fun,” she says.
But even good chemistry can’t save today’s rosemary caramels, which simply won’t set up on this rainy day.