The Wall Street Journal

Ring Dings, From the Heart

There are many ways to say, "I love you." You can buy your significant other diamond earrings, though nothing too ostentatious—say, more than three carats. Or you could get flowers. Flowers obviously trigger something deep in the reptilian regions of most female brains that doesn't exist in many male versions. Not that I don't like beautiful flowers as much as the next guy: It's just that they don't excite me, at least not cut flowers. And they certainly don't positively predispose me to any Tom, Dick or Harry walking down the street with a dozen roses under his arm.

But I suppose none of this explains why I decided to make my wife Ring Dings for Valentine's Day. Not just any Ring Dings: gourmet, deluxe Ring Dings at Tumbador, a Brooklyn chocolate company where my nephew Evan works as an assistant manager. Tumbador's customers include Fairway, Citarella and the Pierre, Setai, Mark, Mandarin Oriental and Trump International hotels.

The crafting of these epicurean snacks doubled as something of a philosophical exercise, not that it will make much difference to my spouse when I present her with the heart-shaped, chocolate-covered, crimson-wrapped little darlings. And the existential question is this: Can crappy, mass-market junk food be improved using quality ingredients, or is their tasty essence inseparable from all the artificial ingredients used to keep them fresh and delicious long after logic would suggest they should have turned to dust?

My gut tells me the latter. I frankly don't think a Drake's Coffee Cake is improvable. You can find all sorts of excellent crumb cakes. But the Drake's version is the zenith of the democratic ambitions it sets for itself. I haven't always been faithful to Yodels, on the other hand. I've strayed with Ho Hos, which seem slightly sweeter, and there may well be no such thing as too sweet in this food category. Also, Cadbury makes a regal milk-chocolate version of the Yodel called a Mini Roll, though I don't believe it's sold in the U.S.

Something resembling a Mini Roll Ring Ding was my goal when I spoke over the phone with Jean-Francois Bonnet, Tumbador's executive pastry chef. Evan had brought home the company's version of a Ring Ding in the past, and while excellent I thought a milk-chocolate model—with milk-chocolate coating, milk-chocolate sponge cake and vanilla crème filling—might be award winning.

Tumbador was started in 2006 by Michael Altman, an executive recruiter. His original idea was to make private-label chocolates for hotels, the kind you find on your pillow at night. The core of the company's operation is still designer chocolates—indeed, its "7 Deadly Sins to Share," a stark, postmodern box filled with black currant and Champagne (pride), almond praline (wrath) and passion fruit (envy) chocolates, among others, may be this Valentine's Day's most high-concept box of candy.

However, Tumbador also found a flourishing niche in the nostalgia category—its own versions of s'mores, mallomars and PB&J bars. Given that all-star lineup one might have thought Mr. Bonnet, who worked at Daniel, the Monkey Bar and Cello before joining the company, would be receptive to my milk chocolate Ring Ding idea. But he shot it out of the sky like a mallard, giving me various reasons why he thought it was impossible.

I basically think it boiled down to the fact that he was French. I know that sounds harsh, but I don't think the French have embraced junk food as unconditionally as we, and to a slightly lesser extent the British, have. I'm not some sort of Francophobe; Mr. Bonnet shared his aversion with me when I visited the factory in Sunset Park last week to make heart-shaped Ring Dings with him. By the way, they call their Valentine's version (devil's food cake with raspberry filling in a crisp chocolate shell) "P'tit Coeur." If that doesn't say it all I don't know what does.

"To me it's inedible," he sniffed, referring to Drake's cakes. "The Ring Ding, when you look at it, it's a thick piece of Crisco in the middle. We have stuff like that back home in France, too. But it's really not that bad."

I did enjoy one small but significant victory: I persuaded Monsieur Bonnet to substitute raspberry ganache for their regular filling. First we made the batter, which included both cake and all-purpose flour, cocoa powder, salt, drip coffee and vanilla. Then we poured the results into heart-shaped molds and let them bake for about 12 minutes.

When they emerged from the oven (in one of those TV cooking show sleight-of-hand moves, we used cakes that he'd made earlier in the day and had time to cool), Mr. Bonnet showed me how to punch two holes through the top of each P'tit Coeur and inject them with the ganache using a pastry tip. It was harder than it looked, most of my hearts ending up either broken or their filling spewing out the top. Mr. Bonnet's motion, by comparison, was confident and precise.

"In general," he explained, "they take one minute and 20 seconds for a tray of 75."

It took me that long to complete two hearts and they looked like crap. Fortunately, they weren't going to Fairway.

The treats moved onto an enrober—basically a 70-foot conveyor belt that covers the product in rich chocolate, then cools it off over the course of a 12-minute ride and deposits it out the other end looking extremely attractive and professional. Except for mine. "You could sell these in the 'hood and call them chocolate" breasts, some bystander observed as my creation emerged from the machinery.

He had a point. They did look like something that could have been produced by an erotic bakery—two topographically significant and mildly suggestive mounds rising from the P'tit Coeur's smooth surface. That was all the excess raspberry ganache I'd injected the Ring Dings with.

But you know what? They tasted great. And my bride and I will be enjoying them on Valentine's Day. Although I have a hunch I'll probably chicken out at the last minute and also buy her flowers.