Photographs: Sophie Aguero
First it takes Hudson Valley butter; lots of it and a generous amount of local cream and organic sugar. Turning those three ingredients into the smooth, delicate caramels that are Michele Kim’s specialty takes a lot of patience. “It’s hurry up and wait,” Kim remarks while she keeps a close watch on the candy thermometers dipped into the storm of butter and sugar roiling on the stove of her production kitchen at La Petite Occasion (or LPO for short), a one-woman confectionary in Mahopac. When the temperature is optimal and Kim knows the consistency is right, she skillfully pours melted organic chocolate into the mix and returns the sweet blend to temperature. Magical aromas fill the kitchen.
A large batch of caramels for Kim is eight pounds at a time; on a slow day that means about 1,000 caramels a day, and she can crank out 100 pounds a day when she’s busy. In addition to caramel production, she crafts candy apples (locally grown) in season from Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard in North Salem, New York. She makes her signature dark-chocolate toffees, made with Guittard chocolate and roasted pecans, from November to May as well; they are always in high demand for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Kim is working on her next flavors: a coffee caramel and a ricotta-based caramel using Poughkeepsie-based Sprout Creek Farm’s goat ricotta. “I’m going for something delicate,” Kim says. Her assistant, Sophie Aguero, offers me three different experimental versions of the ricotta caramels. Each has a pleasant tang behind the sweetness.
While one is smoother and one more textured, all are so delicious that I close my eyes to enjoy them more. Chocolate and vanilla caramels are still the favorites of her loyal customers, especially children, but customers look for Kim’s special caramel flavors, such as cider, bacon-maple and chocolate–Grand Marnier (Aguero’s favorite, made with fresh orange zest).
Kim learned to make nut brittles and toffees during her training in pastry production at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan and then began experimenting at home making gifts for friends. After she and her family moved out of Manhattan in 2005 to Westchester County, she began expanding her confectionary repertoire to include ginger-pecan, maple-walnut and even cinnamon-peanut, a special request.
She started La Petite Occasion in 2011 (the name was an affectionate nod to Kim’s Franco-Swiss heritage) and then went on to become the self-proclaimed “Candy Farmer” with her line of farm-based sweets. Her growing business is at the forefront of the farm-to-candy movement, incorporating Hudson Valley products, such as Harvest Moon cider, Kriemhild Meadow Butter, Hudson Valley Fresh cream and Niese’s Maple Farm maple syrup. While not a local product, the chocoholics’ choice, dark-chocolate caramels with pink Himalayan salt, contains fair-trade organic chocolate. Kim comments, “We believe in these ingredients, but we also believe in the ingredients that go into our ingredients, like the grass that feeds the cows that produce our butter. It’s a difference you can taste.” She finds she can actually use considerably less of high-quality local ingredients due to their concentrated flavors and higher fat content, for example, which makes the cost difference negligible.
Kim’s first career as a graphic designer is evident in the charming, low-key look of her packaging. The hand-wrapped caramels come in understated and compostable craft paper ballotin boxes, which can be filled to order and tied with raffia. La Petite Occasion sells at the Chappaqua, Hastings and Katonah farmers markets, and Kim also sells online and at 15 retailers in New York and New England.
She continues to look to expand into other coffee shops, gourmet markets, restaurants and hotels. “We want to support the farms and the farmers. We also want to give local families a healthy option for their treats. Ethical, sustainable farming isn’t just good business; it’s good candy too,” says Kim. “Goodness can only come from goodness.” —Judith Hausman