Best Wisconsin chocolates: Start with make-your-own candy bars

I’ve built many tacos, fajitas, pizzas, salads, sandwiches and stir-fry meals while on the road, but never – until meeting Liz Garvey in Appleton – had I ever built a dream bar of chocolate.

A custom-made candy bar weighs in around one-half pound and costs $9.50 at Wilmar Chocolates, which began business in 1956. The make-your-own route was added in 2010. Among the more than 40 mix-in choices are potato chips, hazelnuts, gummy bears, goji berries, ginger, M&Ms, marshmallows and graham crackers.

The potential exists to make a real mess of a good thing, so restrain yourself.

Narrowing the list to a max of four compatible add-on ingredients took more thought than I’d care to admit. Then I watched Pam Mitchler fill the order by adding little scoops of toffee chunks, cashews, dried apricots and dried cherries to melted milk chocolate.

Also available are semisweet chocolate and a milk-semisweet blend. I hesitantly passed on the optional spices: cinnamon, sweet curry, sea salt and cayenne pepper.

About 10 minutes later, enough time for a quick cooldown, the chocolate block was wrapped, bagged and in my hands. Although the taste was fresh and agreeable, I will remind myself that “less is more” the next time around and omit the cherries.

Indecisive and culinary-impaired souls have the option to choose one of Wilmar’s 12 tried-and-true candy bar recipes. They include the Slow Burn (cayenne and cinnamon in semisweet chocolate), Toasted Hawaiian (macadamia nuts, dried pineapple and toasted coconut in milk chocolate) and Cherry Pie (dried cherries, almonds and sea salt in milk chocolate).

Customers can watch the making of candy bars from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. At other times, orders require 24-hour notice before pickup. Production occurs in a room where other candy is made, so observers also might see the messy but precise business of hand-dipping chocolates.

“We’re a small-batch and homemade candy business,” says Liz Garvey, and a goal is to turn over store inventory within 45 days.

When she and brother Paul Garvey bought the chocolate business from the original owners in 1984, the sale included recipes for the 19 candies that won Wisconsin State Fair awards. The fair’s chocolate category was discontinued a few years ago, but the Award Collection of blue-ribbon truffles, caramels, toffee and Wilmarvels (similar to turtles, but using cashews instead of pecans) is sold in one- and two-pound boxes.

Wilmar Chocolates, 1222 N. Superior St., is closed on Sundays and during all of July. Custom-made chocolate bars and other candy can be ordered online. wilmarchocolates.com, 920-733-6182

The state of chocolate in Wisconsin is divine, especially for valentines during this sweet month of romance. What I love includes these 10 chocolatiers.

Gail Ambrosius, 2086 Atwood Ave., Madison: One of America’s best, says the Food Network and others. Buy when only the finest will do. These single-origin chocolate profiles are complex and adventurous (think sweet curry with saffron). gailambrosius.com, 608-249-3500

Beerntsen’s Confectionary, 108 N. Eighth Ave., Manitowoc: Around since 1932 and known for its molded novelty chocolates, such as chocolate peanut butter cows, milk chocolate roses by the dozen and five-piece chocolate tool set. Also in Cedarburg. beerntsens.com, 920-684-9616

Confections for Any Occasion by Joel, 101 N. Milwaukee St., Theresa: Candy maker Joel Bernhard’s tasty work is all the more amazing because he has been blind since age 4. His 500-plus candy molds make chocolate butterflies to tractors, but that’s just one line of products. confectionsbyjoel.com, 920-488-9269

Hughes Home Made Chocolates, 1823 Doty St., Oshkosh: Business began in 1940, making oysters (chocolates with vanilla or chocolate filling, dipped in crushed peanuts) and lots of other candy from the basement of a house. Waiting in line to buy a jumbled assortment in a simple, white box is a beloved, longstanding tradition for many. Closed during much of summer. 920-231-7232

James J. Chocolate Shop, 1310 S. Midvale Blvd., Madison: Candy has been made in small batches at affordable prices since 1982. One Valentine’s Day idea: a heart-shaped chocolate box filled with heart-shaped raspberry candies. Also in Lake Mills. jamesjchocolateshop.com, 608-278-4243

Kehr’s Kandy Kitchen, 3533 W. Lisbon Ave., Milwaukee: Find discount prices at this factory store, in business since 1931. Each turtle (caramel, pecans, chocolate) weighs at least one ounce. Also at Milwaukee Public Market. http://martinka.0catch.com/kehrs, 414-344-4305

Quality Candy, 1801 E. Bolivar Ave., St. Francis: Make a reservation to tour the candy factory on a weekday, then shop at the attached store, near Mitchell International Airport. Candy making began in 1916 and now products are shipped throughout the nation. Extra treats come with the annual Easter Open House, on March 17 this year. qcbs.com, 414-483-4500

Seroogy’s, 144 N. Wisconsin St., DePere: They’ve been in business since 1899, for good reason. There is always something to sample at this big and friendly factory store, where it’s easy to get hooked on meltaways. No matter what you buy, add a Seroogy’s candy bar or two. At $1.50 each and nine varieties, they are impossible to resist. Also in Green Bay. seroogys.com, 920-336-1383

Sjolinds Chocolate House, 219 E. Main St., Mt. Horeb: “House of chocolate” means chocolate in what you drink and nibble at the cafe tables, in addition to confections boxed up for the ride home. Locals in this cute town of trolls are loyal customers; such a fine specialty shop might have tough going in less-enlightened small towns. 608-437-0233

Ultimate Confections, 820 N. 68th St., Wauwatosa: A business that began with peanut brittle in 1992 has blossomed into a menagerie of sweet temptations. State Fair fans likely know of this business that always sells treats in the Wisconsin Products Pavilion. chocolatesonline.com, 414-778-0636

That’s my short list, and dozens more choices are listed online at savorwisconsin.com by a membership-based nonprofit that promotes Wisconsin products and services.