Passionate about pralines

Paris-trained Israeli chocolatière Ika Cohen realized a lifelong dream when she opened her own chocolate atelier in south Tel Aviv.

Ika Chocolate 521 (photo credit: Shiran Carmel)
Ika Chocolate 521
(photo credit: Shiran Carmel)
On a cold, gray and rainy April morning, something unusual is happening on Rehov Yad Harutzim, a tiny street on a south Tel Aviv industrial estate. Oblivious to their surroundings, sodden pedestrians trudge along the street, their eyes fixed on the uneven, rain-slicked sidewalk. But as they reach a certain corner, they turn their heads in sudden surprise.
And no wonder: Amid the gray, crumbling concrete of car repair workshops and factories is a luxury chocolate atelier with bright yellow and purple walls.
It’s as if a tiny piece of upmarket Paris had materialized in proletarian Tel Aviv.
Peek through the atelier’s window, and you will see a tall blonde woman rushing to and fro, absorbed in her work. This is chocolatière Ika Cohen, and she is creating pralines. Each individually crafted chocolate has its own shape, its own flavor, its own character. Each has a name recalling faraway exotic lands: marzipan, passion fruit, pistachio.
Enter the atelier, and the temperature drops: For the pralines’ comfort, regardless of the weather outside, the room is maintained at a strict 16 degrees.
“These pralines are my children,” half-jokes Cohen, who realized a lifelong dream when she opened the atelier and store just a month ago.
But for the 36-year-old Cohen, chocolate is not just a business. It’s a way of life, a calling, a science and art. “It’s an entire culture,” she says.
One of Cohen’s most powerful childhood memories is seeing a chocolatière’s stall in Tel Aviv.
“I remember walking past a small praline stand in Dizengoff Center,” she says.
“I was very small at the time, but I remember clearly thinking: ‘I want to have something like that.’” Despite this formative experience, Cohen was in her mid-twenties before she followed her chocolate-making dream. Following her army service, she studied marine biology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and then worked as a sound technician for Channel 10.
“When I worked in media, I saw how much passion my colleagues had for their work,” says Cohen. “I enjoyed my job, but it was just that – a job.”
Cohen had to travel almost to the other side of the world to reconnect with her childhood dream. On a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia and New Zealand, she decided that she would do whatever it took to become a chocolatière.
“I realized I wanted to spend my life making chocolates,” she remembers.
BACK IN Israel, Cohen began an apprenticeship with leading pastry chef Claude Bensimon at Le Central, a smart patisserie on Tel Aviv’s Sderot Rothschild.
After spending a year under Bensimon’s tutelage, Cohen decided to travel to the chocolate capital of Europe – Paris.
The French have revered chocolate since 1615, when explorers brought cacao (or cocoa) beans to France from the Amazon. A royal decree stipulated that chocolate consumption was restricted to the aristocracy.
In contemporary France, of course, everyone is free to eat as much chocolate as they wish, but the French still retain a certain reverence for the cacao bean. To ensure national standards remain high, chocolate-making is strictly regulated by the Académie Française du Chocolat.
“The French take chocolate very seriously,” says Cohen. She means it as an understatement.
In the French capital, she studied chocolate-making with Michel Chaudun, one of the finest chocolatiers in Paris.
“I spent eight months in Paris,” she says. “And I worked, worked and worked. I didn’t just learn about chocolate. I learned about its culture. In Paris, you have to do everything correctly. Every single detail has to be exact.”
During her time in the French capital, Cohen also became acquainted with Israeli filmmaker Eti Peleg, who was making a documentary about chocolate.
Peleg introduced Cohen to several of the French capital’s leading chocolatiers, and traveled with her to Mexico, where Cohen saw for herself how cacao beans are harvested and made into raw chocolate.
When she returned home, Cohen spent six years as the house chocolatière at Ramat Hasharon’s chic Reviva & Celia coffeehouse, where she contributed a chapter of chocolate recipes for the award-winning cookbook Sweets.
Despite her successes at Reviva & Celia, at the back of Cohen’s mind was the desire to establish her very own chocolate atelier.
“It took me six months to find a suitable venue,” she recalls.
“Because I wanted to create a factory, it had to be on an industrial estate.
Finally I came across this place in south Tel Aviv. It was really run-down, but I knew it was perfect.”
IT’S DIFFICULT to imagine that just a few months ago, this spotless white atelier and bijou store was an abandoned nightclub. Cohen still keeps a series of photographs on her cell phone showing the building before its transformation.
“It was a huge renovation, and on top of that I had to design every element of the factory,” she adds.
Apart from its pristine spotlessness, one of the most striking things about Cohen’s atelier is its open-plan design.
Large windows flood the kitchen area with sunlight, allowing passersby to look inside and watch her as she works.
She admits, however, that she is so absorbed in making pralines that she forgets to look through the windows herself.
“It’s a kind of autism,” she jokes. “It doesn’t matter what happens outside. I just make chocolates.
Sometimes I forget what time of day it is and then realize it’s past midnight. My father called last week, and said ‘Ika, it’s two in the morning. I think you should go home now.’” While she does most of the chocolate-making by hand, pride of place in her carefully designed kitchen is a state-of-the art Italian chocolate tempering machine.
Tempering – the process by which raw chocolate is heated to a very specific temperature, melted, cooled and reheated to produce a smooth mixture – requires a high degree of precision, explains Cohen.
Chocolate-tempering is nothing less than molecular science. Cocoa butter, the natural fat contained in chocolate, can form six different types of crystals. Just one of these crystalline structures – known as beta crystals – produces the smooth, shiny chocolate required to make pralines.
As anyone who has melted chocolate at home will know, if even high-quality chocolate is heated and left to cool naturally, it solidifies into a streaky mass with an unattractive grainy texture.
Tempering allows a chocolatier to control the creation of the desired beta crystals. It can be done by hand; but for larger volumes of chocolate and high-precision results, it’s best to use a specialist machine.
Cohen’s Italian chocolate-tempering machine aside, a definite French influence pervades every element of her chocolate atelier – starting from the raw chocolate she uses to create her exquisite pralines. Cohen purchases the finest quality French Valrhona raw chocolate from Tain L’Hermitage in Provence.
THE RAW chocolate itself is made from cacao beans. Native to the Americas, cacao is thought to have originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon basin.
When Spanish explorers reached South America in the early 16th century, they were introduced to cacao and brought it home to Europe. Today, however, most of the world’s cocoa beans are grown in West Africa.
It takes as many as 600 cocoa beans – which are usually harvested by hand – to make a single kilogram of raw chocolate.
Like fine wines, each raw chocolate type has its own distinct flavor, aroma and body that depends on where in the world it is grown, what strain of cacao tree it comes from, and the type of soil the tree grows in.
Valrhona’s Caraibe chocolate, for example, is sourced from the beans of a delicate cacao tree grown in the clay-rich soils of Trinidad. Manjari chocolate is harvested from cacao beans grown on the island of Madagascar.
What sort of pralines does Cohen make from this raw chocolate – and where do the recipes come from? She answers that the basis of her recipes comes from France.
“I make a range of different pralines – filled chocolates – and my favorites are the basil-flavored and the marzipan pralines, because they are real French classics.”
As well as designing the factory and praline recipes, Cohen also created a brand.
“I decided to name the brand Ika Chocolates, because that’s who I am, that’s what I do,” she says.
Cohen has also runs a series of workshops that she hopes will introduce the Israeli public to the art and science of making pralines.
“The workshops are very intimate, with just three students per session, so each person can really get to learn about chocolate-making,” Cohen says.
The workshops cater for two different levels of student: beginners who have never worked with chocolate before, and more experienced cooks. Students learn the art of chocolate-tempering, and make ganache (chocolate cream filling) and pralines.
In a separate workshop titled “Tastes and Textures,” students learn more about the wide variety of pralines and create chocolates filled with ganache, truffle, marzipan and fruit.
Both in her own chocolate creations and her workshops, Cohen says she is part of a new generation of young Israeli chocolatiers that has sprung up over the past few years.
“There was a wave of chocolate-making a few years ago with the likes of [Israeli chocolatier] Max Brenner,” she notes.
“But more recently, Max Brenner has become more of a restaurant business. Today, there is a new wave of chocolatiers in Israel.”
Many of those chocolatiers are French-speaking olim who trained in their native France and brought their skills with them to Israel when they made aliya.
This influx of French chocolate-makers is a very good thing for Israel’s nascent patisserie culture, adds Cohen.
“[The French] also introduced top-class workshops and culinary schools,” she says. “So now, in Israel, the level of culinary training is much higher than before. Israelis can train at an international level. Courses are still expensive, but it’s much cheaper and easier than traveling abroad for training.”
The new wave of French-speaking chocolatiers and pastry chefs has also boosted Israeli chefs’ technical knowledge of chocolate-making, notes Cohen.
Keen to play a role in boosting Israeli links with leading French chefs, Cohen now works with top pastry chef Michel Willaume during his visits to Israel as a representative of the French Valhrona chocolate company.
Yet what Cohen says she enjoys most is being in her new factory, making chocolates.
“I’m not in this business to make a lot of money. I want Ika Chocolates to be a small boutique store, not a large chain,” she confides.
“I don’t want to grow so large that I lose the intimate atmosphere I’m working so hard to cultivate,” she says. “I’m doing this for love. Because making chocolates is my passion. Because it’s such an amazing feeling to create something that gives other people pleasure.”
Ika Chocolate (atelier and store), Rehov Yad Harutzim 11, Tel Aviv, tel. (03) 688-0440 or visit