Whenever I take the train to visit my sister and her family in Westchester I stop-off at Li-Lac Chocolates in the Grand Central Market to pick up tiny milk chocolate Kiddie Pops for my two nieces. The company has been around for over 85 years and their sweets have that Old World, authentic quality hard to find these days. It's impossible for me to stand in front of that sublime smelling counter without going for a little something for me and my sister too. Peanut butter fudge for my sister and chocolate covered orange peel for me. But my most recent visit to chocolate heaven was such a disappointment that I vowed never to return.
I stood waiting for the saleswoman to come back from wherever she had run off to. Oh, there she was on her cell phone, eying me suspiciously from the window of the door leading to the storage area behind the counter. She rolled her eyes, swung open the door and said, "Yes?"
"Oh, hi. I just wanted to get two milk chocolate Kiddie Pops and... wait, what are those little animal pops?"
"Right there," I pointed. "The lobster and is that a dog?"
Nothing. She sighed audibly and then her phone began to ring.
"I'll have one of each please." I forced a super fake smile which she acknowledged by continuing to look annoyed that a customer had dared to show up at her retail establishment. "And can I also get a small piece of peanut butter fudge and a ¼ pound of chocolate covered orange peel."
Just as she rang up the total I remembered that I'd forgotten to get cash and didn't even have enough to cover the chocolate lobster and the animal I had yet to confirm was a dog.
"I'm so sorry, I don't have enough cash!" I gave her one of those, 'Can you believe it? I'm sure you've been in this position!' faces at which she stared blankly. "I'm going to have to stick to the Kiddie Pops."
At this point she shook her head, placed the fudge back on its stack, emptied the bag of peel into its dish and tossed the animals back into their glass fronted cage. She then grabbed the two Kiddie Pops, stuffed them in the same bag, rang them up and stared at me until I forked over my dollar bill.
What is wrong with this picture? Where to begin? Surly help in a service industry is never good for business. I don't say this from the point of view of the customer. I'm saying it because I have only ever worked in service businesses and in fact was a sales woman myself. I can only imagine what my boss would have done if I'd been on a cell phone or had even thought of rolling my eyes. But what struck me most about this exchange was the fact that the woman works at a candy store. What could be happier than candy? Where does she get off being so grumpy when she is surrounded by the kind of deliciousness that instantly puts a smile on the customer's face?
But you know what? This kind of thing has happened to me before. There's a fantastic baking supply store on 22nd Street that has the reputation of employing the saddest bunch of people I've ever seen. Aisle after aisle of baking chocolate, candy, pans, molds, frostings, glassine bags, cake boxes and cake toppers still leave the employees looking like they're working at a slaughterhouse instead of a place where the fixings for the most beautiful and celebratory things can be found.
And speaking of slaughterhouses, there is incredible irony in the remarkable friendliness of every butcher I have ever come into contact with, starting from when I was a child. There was a guy who worked at the meat market around the corner from our apartment who had succumbed several times to the hazards specific to his industry. He was missing the top halves of three of the fingers on his left hand. Between being surrounded by dead animals and semi-amputated digits, he would have had every right to be a miserable grouch. But he was so sweet, always offering me a little slice of bologna while my mom ordered her roast, giving us big smiles and "see you soon!' when we left the store.
Maybe it's something about working at a place where the expectation of being cheerful is just too much for the staff to bear. When I started knitting, before I then stopped knitting, I used to go to a yarn store on the Upper West Side that had the prettiest selection. There was a big table they used for classes and tutorials. It was in a creaky, nook of a space in an old building and should have been a cozy spot to retreat to on a rainy day for a knitting project and some like-minded conversation. Not for me. The people who owned the place looked so beleaguered, almost resenting their success. Their employees were a little more upbeat but didn't know as much as their bosses leaving me to wait until Grump One or Grump Two happened to look my way and responded to my pleading eyes.
In the meantime, on my next visit to my sister I stuck to Operation Snub Li-Lac and bought the girls a jumbo "Tear n' Share" pack of M & M's at the newsstand instead. Two minutes after they picked me up at the station my youngest niece asked, "Did you get us chocolate pops?" And when I said, "No, but I got you something else yummy!" her face fell. "But you always get us chocolate pops."
My commitment to the pact I made with myself melted away. I'll happily put up with a miserable saleswoman in order to keep my favorite soon-to-be four-year old in cacao. And truth be told, I've been bemoaning the fact that my empty wallet aborted my chocolate dipped orange peel purchase. So, until I venture to Grand Central, I am going it on my own. Orange and chocolate are one of the all-time great combos (see my favorite cake recipe), and there is real satisfaction in making something chocolate shop worthy. Of course you can leave them naked and enjoy them in their plain, sugared-citrus sweetness. But just remember to serve them with a smile. It's candy after all.
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Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, December 2008
3 Navel oranges
4 cups sugar, plus 1/2 cup more for rolling
4 cups water
1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips
Using a paring knife, make 6 slits along curve from top to bottom of each orange, cutting through peel but not into fruit. Using your fingers, gently remove peel. Reserve fruit for another use. Using a paring knife, remove excess pith from each strip and discard. Slice each piece of peel lengthwise into 1/4-inch-wide strips.
Place strips in a large saucepan, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then drain. Repeat twice.
Bring sugar and water to a boil, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Stop stirring. Wash sides of pan with a wet pastry brush to prevent sugar crystals from forming. Add strips to boiling syrup, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently until strips are translucent, about 1 hour. Remove from heat. Place colander/sieve over a bowl and drain, reserving the liquid for later use. (The simple syrup would be great in tea, lemonade or fancy cocktail.)
Using a slotted spoon, transfer strips to a wire rack placed on a rimmed baking sheet. Wipe off excess syrup with paper towels, then roll strips in sugar. Arrange in a single layer on a wire rack, and let dry. No less than 30 minutes but feel free to go to 3 hours or so.
In a medium bowl, melt chocolate chips over a pan of simmering water or in the microwave.
Dip or roll orange peels into chocolate, shake off excess and place on rack to set.
Yield: 50 pieces
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