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Family 'fudge sauce' Maison de Nora makes a comeback

Editor's Note: Maison de Nora fudge sauce is $12 a jar and the fudge cookies are $12 for a dozen (at least 10 oz.) Send a message to peterstilton@tampabay.rr.com or call (813) 220-5666 to place orders and to arrange either local pick up, delivery or shipment. It is not currently available at Oxford Exchange.

LAKE MAGDALENE

From a kitchen north of Tampa, a once-famous fudge sauce is making a comeback.

"It's time," said Jill Levin Stilton, granddaughter of the recipe's creator, Nora Wolfson, who invented the rich, bittersweet sauce as a young wife in Miami in the 1920s.

Called Maison de Nora, the fudge's simple ingredients — chocolate, margarine, sugar, natural flavorings — combined to create an addictive, velvety sauce that is solid unless heated, which also makes it excellent for eating with a spoon. When heated gently, its darkness and depth pair well with the sweetness of ice cream.

New York Magazine described it as "silky and smooth, with a genteel, rich, bittersweet flavor." Wolfson loved it with things like raspberries, orange wafers and homemade cream puffs. She was a petite woman who believed in moderation and balance and, for her, that meant having a light dinner to make way for a delicious dessert.

"I used to have dinner parties and serve the sauce, and everybody loved it," Wolfson told the Lakeland Ledger in 1981, as Maison de Nora was becoming a hit across the country, served in high end restaurants; placed on shelves at places like Neiman Marcus, Dean & DeLuca and Macy's; and pictured in the pages of People and Vogue magazines.

"We'd go out of town to visit people," she told the Ledger, "and they always demanded that I bring them a jar of it. I'd meet friends from years before, and they'd always say, 'Well, Nora, how about some of your sauce?' "

She didn't go into business at first because she was busy raising two children. In the 1940s, though, she started selling her jars to fancy Miami Beach hotels like the Fontainebleau, her family said. It was doing well, Stilton said. But Wolfson and her husband had to move to Tampa to work with his family's movie theater business here, so that put her venture on hiatus. They moved back to Miami after a few years, but after Wolfson's husband died in 1964, she moved back to Tampa to live with her daughter, Stilton's mother.

Wolfson was gracious, loving, nurturing and warm, relatives said. People gravitated toward her, pouring out their secrets, knowing she would never tell. Her faith gave her gratitude for what she had and she didn't complain. She was devoutly religious, but not judgmental, Stilton said.

Wolfson's family was Jewish, but her mother became a Christian Scientist after being healed of debilitating heart disease, Stilton said. Wolfson, who experienced healings herself, and others in the family also became Christian Scientists, and she was active until her death in 1988 at age 90, Stilton said.

"She was so loved," Stilton said.

When she was in her 80s, her fudge sauce hit the big time. Stilton's brother, Scott Levin, pulled the family together to create a business to sell their grandmother's fudge sauce and fudge cookies. A Sarasota Journal story from 1981 said Maison de Nora had spread into 40 states in just 19 months. It was plugged on Good Morning America, according to the Lakeland Ledger, which also said the company was shipping from its Tampa plant 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of Maison de Nora a month.

"We never dreamed it would get this big so fast," Levin told the Ledger.

He was the president of the family company. Stilton did the majority of the cooking. Their grandmother taste-tested the batches and was the sweet face of the company, flying around the country, chatting up reporters and business officials to promote her product.

But a few years after it began, the company halted operation. Stilton said it was scammed into sending out a huge order that the buyer never paid for, which caused everything to crumble. Her sister Valerie Zucker said the company stopped because it tried to expand too fast.

"It was too much to try to run that level of a business with your family," she said.

And so Maison de Nora, once again, became something enjoyed just by family and friends. Stilton often made the sauce and cookies for entertaining. Her husband, artist Peter Stilton, urged her to bring Wolfson's creation back into the public view.

"I feel a great comfort in being able to do this," he said. "We are really perpetuating what her grandmother did."

The Stiltons, who have two teenage sons, are searching for a professional kitchen and working to get a website up and running. Jill Stilton has been whipping up batches of the sauce and sealing them in glass jars with paraffin, just like her grandmother used to do. The Stiltons made their debut recently at the Oxford Exchange Holiday Gift Bazaar, selling the jars for $12 each. Jill Stilton said it went well and has been taking orders for the sauce and cookies.

Zucker said she's proud of her sister for continuing their beloved grandmother's business.

"If it's meant to grow into something big, that's fine," she said. "If not, that's fine too.

"But it's just meant to go on."

Contact Erin Sullivan at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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