As an 8-year-old, Valerie Gordon started making chocolate chip cookies for her classmates. Those bake sessions kicked off a lifelong hobby, and by the time she became manager of the Hollywood haunt Les Deux Cafés, she was regularly whipping up buttery toffees for friends. "Everyone said I should turn my side project into a full-time gig," Gordon says. In 2003, the restaurant closed; two months later, Gordon launched Valerie Confections out of her kitchen. She started with her toffee in flavors like almond fleur de sel; three years later, after opening a shop in Los Angeles, she began really experimenting, creating mint mendiants, lavender petits fours, and nostalgic California desserts like coffee crunch cake. "There's a dim sum appeal to what I do," Gordon says, with a nod to her Chinese heritage. "Lots of small treats."
Gordon and her team often hand-dip hundreds of chocolates per day, a technique she calls therapeutic: "Some people find Zen through yoga; for me, it's creating clean lines with smooth molten chocolate." Gordon's challenge is keeping up with her own imagination. She has a penchant for surprising flavor hybrids (rose petal–passion fruit, pansy–black currant) and finds inspiration at the flower market and spice shop. As she works, she often thinks of her grandfather, who once said to never arrive at someone's house empty-handed. "I want everything I create to feel like a gift," she says.
Since her dessert debut, Gordon has opened two more locations. This fall she published Sweet,
a gorgeous baking book created, she says, "for all the customers who tell me, 'I could never make this!' Now they can see that dessert-making doesn't have to be overwhelming." Gordon should know: She often writes recipes while helping her 6-year-old son with his homework and frosts cakes with her 1-year-old daughter on her hip. She hopes they'll both master a batch of cookies soon.
Excerpted from Sweet: Inspired Ingredients, Unforgettable Desserts by Valerie Gordon (Artisan Books) Copyright 2013. Photographs by Peden + Munk.