Inside the Kooky World of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates

The biggest surprise about Roni-Sue’s considerable variety of bacon confections — five types and counting — isn’t the marriage of pork and cocoa (heck, Vosges bacon-kissed bars have been at Whole Foods for years). Rather, it’s the person behind the sweets that goes against type. Roni-Sue — aka Rhonda Kave — isn’t some L-train-riding hipster, but a former housewife with a freckled face and a long, red Little House on the Prairie–style braid who’s embarked on a new career.

This 56-year-old mother of two is the twisted mind who brought you Pig Candy, which is pretty much what it sounds like: whole bacon strips dipped in dark or milk chocolate — porky, salty crunchiness in a cocoa-butter cloak. Kave’s Fuster Cluck utilizes Pig Candy’s leftover animal- fatty dipping chocolate in a sodium-packed lipid bomb of peanut butter, Special K flakes, bits of bacon and freeze-dried banana. Her BaCorn, meanwhile, is popcorn from Greenmarket’s Oak Grove, covered in caramel and flecked with, yes, more bacon, and chili-dusted peanuts.

While Roni Sue’s foray into heart-stopping bonbons is very much in line with the prevalent foodie mentality that more fat is better — the same concept that’s made pork belly a de rigueur menu item, lardo an acceptable toast topping and the Bacon Explosion an online sensation — it wasn’t the result of some marketing scheme.

Roni-Sue — a sobriquet bestowed by Kave’s mom, who opened a children’s clothing store named for her daughter; Kave uses the shop’s logo as her own — didn’t start off as the princess of pork. When she opened her stall in the Essex Street Market in 2007, she debuted with butter crunch and a dozen carefully crafted seasonal truffles made with a base of ganache or perzipan (like marzipan, but made mostly with apricot kernels) in flavors such as mango, cherry and strawberry-rhubarb.

“My thing is all about layering flavor,” says Kave, whose raspberry truffle, for instance, combines berries soaked in Chambord, raspberry vinegar, raspberry powder and St. Dalfour raspberry jam with a dark-chocolate-and-butter ganache. Kave also shares the name she gave the chocolaty walnuts left over from her batches of butter crunch: “Dirty nuts.”

It’s her sense of perversity, rather than her refinement, that seems to be capturing the attention of New York’s chocolate fans. Take that Pig Candy. Last year, Kave collaborated with some of her fellow Essex Street Market tenants: Kenny Shopsin of Shopsin’s General Store fried the bacon, provided by Jeffrey Ruhalter of Jeffrey’s Meat Market, who also thought up the name. The now-famous creation, which Kave unveiled at Manhattan’s annual Chocolate Show in 2008, was written up in the Times and, says Kave, “took off like a rocket to Mars.”

Kave’s comfort winging it may be traced to the fact that she’s more or less self-trained. Her first exposure to candy making was at a recreational class she took back when she was a stay-at-home mom on Long Island (“I was bored out of my mind!”). She continued to cultivate the skill solely as hobbyist for the next 25 years, particularly around the holidays, when she’d make hundreds of pounds of butter crunch and truffles for friends. Once her children grew up — Allison works in the arts, and Corwin is executive chef at Fatty Crab — Kave and her husband, Richard, moved to the city. Her first post-homemaker gig was as an advocate at the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a job she held for eight years while attending classes at NYU to complete her undergraduate degree in sociology.

All the while, Kave had been toying with the idea of going into business as a chocolatier. The plan solidified three years ago while she was researching her final project — “a huge paper about farmers markets and food insecurity” — and made a trek to one of the city’s last surviving public markets on Essex Street.

Originally conceived by Mayor Fiorello Laguardia as a way to centralize the Lower East Side’s street peddlers, the mismatched, city-subsidized collective of food and other vendors has been operating on the corner of Essex and Delancey Streets since 1940. The dusty indoor space seems to foster quirky, individualistic expression, from the elaborate fondant-decorated cakes at Rainbo’s to the meatthemed art shows that Jeffrey Ruhalter hosts at his butcher shop.

“When I first came, I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?'” says Kave, “‘This is like a European food mart, it’s awesome!'” When she laid eyes on a newspapered-up space, she couldn’t help but inquire as to its availability. “I thought, if not now, when?” The 100-square-foot nook would become the home to her fledgling enterprise, Roni-Sue’s Chocolates. A year and a half later she moved to a larger stall on the market’s better-trafficked west side.

The crowd that ambles through the market on a recent Saturday afternoon ranges from Spanish speakers shopping for provisions at Batista Grocery and Minimarket — two stalls stocked from floor to ceiling with cans of coconut milk, oversized avocados and other Latino essentials — to breathless foodies tasting hard-to-find imported cheeses and cured meats at the tiny gourmet emporium Formaggio Essex.

A few shoppers pause over Roni-Sue’s maple lollipops, studded with yet more bacon, or purchase a wax-paper sack of butter crunch at $26 a pound. One passerby is fellow Essex Street marketeer Zack Shopsin, who heckles Kave as she gets her photo taken for this story. “The naked pictures? That’ll be later?” Kave shoos him away — “We trade cookies for sliders,” she quips.

Her stall is decorated with all manner of chocolatey tchotchkes — a strip of yarn bacon knit by Allison, plus posters of that famous scene where Lucy and Ethel pull candies off of a conveyor belt and into their mouths, an image that seems to epitomize the shop’s off-the-cuff spirit.

Today, we’re making Pig Candy, plus a carnivorous take on classic butter crunch paved with crushed bacon strips, dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in chili-spiked peanuts. Kave’s righthand woman, Michelle Sarivole, 32, is the deadpan, sardonic assistant from Central Casting — a literally sugar-coated version of Annie Potts’s secretary from Ghostbusters, or Dr. Katz’s eye-rolling receptionist, Laura. But those two were disgruntled redheads and Michelle, a trained pastry chef whose jet-black hair frames her hooded eyes, seems to adore her job.

Sarivole reaches into the lowboy and pulls out four plastic containers filled with curled rashers of bacon. On the stainless steel counter, a tempering machine keeps both dark and milk chocolates ready for dipping, which, between the truffles and the bacon, Kave and Sarivole do often. Sarivole transfers a goodly dose of dark into a warmer, which maintains the chocolate at a constant temperature. Then she drops in the bacon strips a few at a time, submerges them in molten chocolate, uses what looks like ultralong tweezers to fish them out and shakes off the excess in a sieve. “It’s easy as long as the bacon is cooked properly,” she says, which in this case means until it can’t get any crispier. “When I leave here, I smell like bacon.”

Once Sarivole has filled several cookie sheets with dark and milk Pig Candy, she slides them into the Ironix, an Italian holding cabinet that maintains an ideal environment for crystallizing chocolate.

Then Kave readies the ingredients for the bacon butter crunch: Two one-pound bricks of Plugrá European-style (read: higher fat) butter, four cups of sugar and one and a half tablespoons of salt, all of which she blithely dumps into an enormous cast-iron skillet, while Sarivole crumbles more fried bacon onto fresh pans —  “However much looks good,” she says. “We don’t like to be cheap with the bacon,” adds Kave. Soon the metallic surfaces are practically obscured with crispy brown bits.

Kave has been making butter crunch for so long that she does it without the aid of a candy thermometer. It takes about 30 to 40 minutes for the butter, sugar and salt mixture to transform from a white mass to a foamy, frothy mixture, and, eventually, to the dark, thin liquid she pours into the waiting bacon-lined trays. “See how it’s starting to smoke?” asks Kave.

“I know it’s done when it starts burning my eyes,” says Sarivole. Kave giggles as she lifts the heavy skillet and pours the molten toffee over the crumbled bacon. I write in my notebook: “deranged homemaker.” I can’t help it.

While many of Kave’s chocolates represent her madcap sensibility — Exhibit F: her contribution to this year’s LES Pickle Festival was pickle truffles that combined Guss and Pickle Guys full-sours with perzipan filling — others are more personal, and in many cases, more sophisticated, often telling a story from her past.

Kave once lived in New Mexico and she’s translated her enthusiasm for the state’s Hatch chilies into her Down the Hatch candy, butter crunch embedded with the peppers and dipped in dark chocolate, a sweet with a slow capsaicin burn. Her Cocktail Collection, meanwhile, features her favorite drink, the Manhattan, as a ganache truffle infused with Knob Creek bourbon, Angostura bitters and sweet vermouth, and topped with a dried cherry — a boozy creation with an herbal aftertaste. The Dark and Stormy is a version of her daughter Allison’s favorite drink, spicy with ginger and dark rum. And the absinthe chocolate came about when her son, Corwin, brought the wormwood liquor home one year for Christmas.

Kave turns thoughtful. “For a market to take hold, you need to have the experiential element,” she says, thinking back to her NYU days. “Not like going to Stop & Shop, that’s utilitarian. To go to a specialty market, it has to be about more than product you can buy.” This place has it in spades.

Photo credit: Jocelyn Baun.