A Nice Valentine Treat Can be More Than Bonbons

You know how you hear French people supposedly eat rich, creamy food and don't get fat? I pondered this recently on a visit to L.A. Burdick in Walpole, where the atmosphere and the fare are so luscious that even smaller European portions leave one feeling satisfied.

Burdick is a perfect blend of European and New Hampshire style – an old, white clapboard building on the outside, soft lighting and linen-covered tables on the inside – a world-class melding of local food and far-flung fine ingredients.

Burdick has roots in France and Switzerland. Owner Larry Burdick lived in both countries, where he gained an appreciation for French food and spent three years as an apprentice in Switzerland to learn the art of chocolate making. He and his wife Paula opened shop in Walpole in 1997, selling chocolates and pastries in a small space until popular demand (and a donation by Walpole resident Ken Burns) led to expansion of a new café and restaurant in 2002. Burdick also has a thriving retail business, and has opened additional cafés in Boston, Cambridge and New York City – but lucky for New Hampshire, its flagship store is in Walpole.

You can dine on Eggs Benedict and grilled steak in the restaurant, surrounded as I was on this mid-December day by refined New Hampshirites, some in Norwegian sweaters, some still sporting their earflap hats, as they sipped flutes of champagne. Or you can bypass the restaurant, head through the wooden French doors labeled "Chocolate." Then take a seat at a café table and indulge in drinks and pastries while Burdick's signature chocolate mice peer at you from glass display cases.

Order a Burdick hot chocolate. It is deservedly famous. The dark version I tried, at 70 percent cacao content, was like drinking a melted European chocolate bar. This chocoholic marveled that I couldn't get through my full cup – overindulging felt like effort, the stuff was so rich – and I felt so completely satisfied by the fix that I didn't need brunch.

But I soldiered on to sample the pastries – specifically, the chocolate marbled gugelhopf (moist, lightly sweet tea cake), the lemon chocolate cake (nine slim alternating layers of creamy, zingy lemon and chocolate with a fudge ceiling) and the chocolate mousse cake (alternating layers of lingonberry jam topped with chocolate mousse).

"It's definitely our most popular chocolate pastry," Burdick's pastry chef Cori Hildreth said of the mousse. She was huddled at one of the tables with her two young children and her assistant chef, Shannon Waysville, as winter's first real snowfall piled up outside the windows.

"The flavors are really nice. We use pear liquor, lingonberry jam. We get to use the finest ingredients, and you can tell the difference. We're lucky. Our milk, cream and eggs are all local – and our fruit too. And when we aren't working with local, it's usually high-quality European ingredients."

Hildreth's path as pastry chef to what could be called the premier bakery café in New Hampshire was pretty straightforward.

"Food has been a part of my life and has played a part in every job I've done," she says. She grew up in the Walpole area, where her parents owned a restaurant in Keene, and she was involved in the business from an early age. When she graduated from high school she worked at a small sandwich shop before spending eight years in the Walpole Inn's kitchen. "That's where I really started pastry," she says. "They needed someone to do the pastry and the bread. It was nothing I'd really done before, and I really took an interest in it. My training was definitely hands-on and learn-as-you go."

The secret of great pastry baking, Hildreth says, is patience: "It's definitely a science to go from cooking to baking. Cooking is more free, you just do it as you go, and with baking, you have to be precise."

In 2003 she found out there was an opening at Burdick. She got the job and worked under the tutelage of chocolate and pastry chef Michael Klug, who arrived at the restaurant in 2002 after working in New York's Lespinasse, Chantrelle, and The Mark.

Hildreth and Waysville work at the company's new pastry facility, completed in October 2012 and attached to the chocolate production facility at the north end of Main Street. Each week they create hundreds of whole pastries and thousands of Luxembourgers that are shipped to Burdick's Boston, Cambridge and Manhattan locations.

"We have a driver that goes down to [Boston and New York] three times a week," says Hildreth. She raised her hands to indicate the surrounding café. "This is the easy stop."