Jennifer Ashby’s team at Scotts Valley-based Ashby Confections offers up an array of confections made from locally sourced chocolate and draws inspiration for fruit-flavored candies from the berries and citrus grown on farms around Santa Cruz County.
Chocolate is one of those universally beloved life staples.
Just ask Jennifer Ashby, who was so enamored with chocolate that she started her own confectionery business 18 years ago, specializing in classic chocolate and fruity sweets.
Ashby Confections opened in 2004 at a location in Aptos. Since then, sales have grown twentyfold. Ashby’s now has eight employees, a mix of full- and part-time staff.
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In 2013, Ashby Confections moved to its current location in the Victor Square shopping center in Scotts Valley. Looking to expand, Ashby is keeping an eye out for other locations around Santa Cruz County and is also hoping to take on a couple more employees to fill out her team.
Ashby got involved with the Aptos farmers market in 2014. She also has a booth at the farmers market in downtown Santa Cruz. “I make candy with farmers market fruit, so I work with local farmers and I support them,” she said.
The Ashby booth at the Aptos market offers a miniature version of the Scotts Valley store, with a display of neatly boxed chocolates, jars of sour strips, bags of tortoises and bundles of chocolate bars.
Ashby and her team make all their sweets by hand and in small batches. She aims to find local and/or organic ingredients for her products. Her chocolate is primarily sourced from Santa Cruz-based White Label Chocolate — the chocolatiers behind Mutari Chocolate — and Guittard Chocolate Company based near San Francisco.
She doesn’t have far to go for the fruit, either. For her fruit-flavored treats, Ashby sources from farms around Santa Cruz County and Northern California: strawberries from Serendipity Farms, boysenberries from Prevedelli Farms, grapefruit from Ken’s Top Notch Produce, stone fruit from Fog Hollows Farm, oranges from Twin Girls Farm and more.
Ashby developed a love for baking early in life while growing up in Ojai. She attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, which is where she became captivated with sweets. “I took to [candy-making] naturally,” she said, “and picked as many brains in school as possible.”
Her gateway candy? The traditional French pâté de fruit (pronounced pat-de-fwee), also known as fruit jellies. A pâté de fruit uses fruit puree, which is generally set in a mold and then dusted with powdered sugar.
The candies were a perfect segue into her life as a confectioner: “I just love fruit,” she said. ”I grew up with fruit trees. I grew up going to the farmers market.”
To cement her candy-making knowledge, she toured Europe for five weeks after graduating culinary school, and she “tasted and talked to people all over” about processes, flavors, ingredients and more, which came to inform her own techniques.
Ashby Confection makes about 80 flavors annually, but at any one time, a customer can find 20 to 30 flavors — a mix of sour candies, pâtés de fruit and chocolates.
What are her most popular items? For the fruit candies, “anything berry,” she said, but Santa Rosa plums seems to stand out above the rest. And as for favorite chocolate varieties? Fresh orange, flavored simply with orange zest.
Ashby has also tried her hand at unconventional candy flavors like tomato and green pea. While she admits the tomato was “pretty good,” she maintains that unusual flavors like those wouldn’t be successful long term. Unless she were located in an area with more tourist traffic, novelties aren’t worth the time and money. More than that, she said, “I just like making classic flavors and classic combinations that are tried and true. And they’re wonderful — I like making the best I can with the best ingredients I can.”
Another unusual ingredient? Insects — like beetles and crickets. “They’re just crunchy,” said Ashby, who wanted to experiment with them for fun outside of the business but has also received requests to work with them. For instance, one confection was a simple chocolate-covered beetle. Part of Ashby Confection’s involves requests, such as chocolates with the faces of the Beatles (the band this time) or specialized wedding chocolates, which allows Ashby to exercise her creative side.
When it comes to candy-making, Ashby says, there’s a lot of science involved. A confectioner must understand the chemical properties of each ingredient and how they behave given fluctuations in temperature, quantity and technique. Creating a new candy, or even perfecting an old one, can take years of trial and error. The pâté de fruit, for instance, gave Ashby a couple years of trouble until she got it to where she wanted it.
Chocolate, on the other hand, requires a different level of experimentation even before setting up shop.
“Chocolate is a funny substance to work with, especially if you move from environment to environment,” Ashby said. Temperature and humidity conditions must be set ahead of time. For instance, too cold and the chocolate sets up too fast, leading to cracking. Too hot and the chocolate sets up too slowly, leading to “blooming” — when the chocolate separates and the fat coalesces.
About 20% of Ashby Confection’s sales come from the Scotts Valley store. The rest Ashby gets from events like the farmers market and wholesale business. In December, she said she sees four times the amount of monthly business thanks to corporate gifting, markets and other events.
Besides the farmers market, you can find Ashby’s chocolates at stores around Santa Cruz like New Leaf Community Markets and Shoppers Corner, or at events like tech launches, weddings and festivals. Ashby also partners with wineries in the area like Beauregard Vineyards, based in Bonny Doon, for chocolate and wine pairings.
Find Ashby Confections at the downtown Santa Cruz and Aptos farmers markets.