Sweetness is imprinted on MJ Szymanski, executive pastry chef at Hilton Denver Inverness. Literally, her colorful body art showcases items from the Candyland board game. Figuratively, she and her staff craft hundreds of chocolates, petit fours, macarons, European bonbons and other baked treats every day for the hotel’s Elevate Coffee Bar, Breckenridge Brewery, Fireside Bar and Grill and the Garden Terrace, as well as special events and room service.
Born in Buffalo, New York, she went to cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh before moving to Colorado in 2011. She created confections at Hyatt Regency, Crave Real Burgers, The Ritz-Carlton and the Colorado Convention Center before joining Hilton.
“I was home-schooled early on, so I could cook and bake to my heart’s content. The first chocolates I made at home were probably these great nougat chocolate candies I gave as gifts. My go-to candy as a kid was Twix. I liked the whole chocolate-covered-layered-crunch situation.”
“Working with chocolate has some challenges. It’s very sensitive to the humidity in our kitchen, and the temperature at workstations and of materials. In the dead of summer, sometimes we’ll have to ice down our tables or move chocolate into a cooler and make chocolate garnishes in there.”
“I’ve mostly worked at hotels, which I like because the work changes so much day-to-day. Being a pastry chef, I get to have this personal touch in special occasions. It’s a chance to be creative and do something crazy.”
“For special occasions, we make a showpiece dessert using a chocolate sphere. We pour dark chocolate into half-globe molds and piece them together. Then after cutting a hole in the bottom, you can fill the ball with whatever you like: chocolate ganache, square pieces of chocolate, little meringues, fresh berries. The globe is set in a bowl with pieces of cake. To present the dessert, we pour a warm sauce—either chocolate or maybe raspberry white chocolate or crème anglaise—and it melts the globe, revealing the filling. It makes a great display.”
“It’s pretty easy to make chocolate garnishes at home. You need to use couverture chocolate, also called coating chocolate. It’s tempered and made to be melted and remelted. Heat it carefully in a glass bowl in the microwave in small increments: Don’t overheat or the chocolate will be ruined! And if you use regular chocolate like Hershey’s, the garnishes will fall apart.
“Set parchment paper on top of a cookie sheet or on the counter. You can use a pastry bag or a sandwich bag with the corner cut off to write words on the parchment. The chocolate can also be poured, spread and then, when it is partially set, cut with a knife or cookie cutters into shapes. Let it finish hardening and it will peel right off the parchment. You can, too, dip a small water-filled balloon in the chocolate to form a cup for whipped cream or sauces.”