Today’s old fashioned candy kitchens attract customers by displaying the candy maker in action. We watch pimply faced minimum wage teens stirring the kettle or overseeing the mechanical puller, and think, “I can do that.” The Joy of Cooking still has recipes for pulling taffy and making fudge, the very kinds of candy you are most likely to find being made before your eyes at Ye Olde Candy Kitchen.
What we aren’t likely to realize is that these simple, transparent operations are the exception. Before mechanization and the de-luxurization of sugar, the art of the sugar boiler was secret and restricted to a very few. Modern candy after 1850 was a product of technological developments that quickly took candy out of home-style kitchens. The art of the candy maker was supplemented, and perhaps in our day supplanted, by engineering.
But both art and engineering have removed candy from the realm of things we can easily comprehend and duplicate, from the days of the sugar plum through the zenith of American candy to our own globalized candy cornucopia. This is the miracle, and the marvel, of modern candy.
This month in candy here at Candy Professor Central it’s “candy corn-a-palooza.” Together with my Fearless Assistant (aka Jelly Bean Baby*), we have been noshing our way through the full spectrum of candy corn offerings.
I’ll be honest with you, it hasn’t always been pretty. Last week, we experienced a most unpleasant sort of surprise in the guise of M&M White Chocolate Candy Corn. Verdict: Don’t go there. In the spirit of gustatory recovery, then, this week we return to the classic: real, authentic candy corn.
Candy corn is a generic bit of mellocreme, invented back in the 1880s. Anybody can sell candy corn, and judging by the offerings in my local drugstores, anybody does. So we decided it was time for a little taste-off. Here are the contenders:
In the upper left corner, Jelly Belly’s premium gourmet candy corn, 99 cents/ounce.
Immediately below, Brach’s national brand candy corn, 25 cents/ounce.
And rounding out the field, on the right, Rite Aid store brand candy corn, 16 cents/ounce.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the bottom line: you get what you pay for. The high-end Jelly Belly product truly is superior. The bits are even, regular, smooth and shiny. The flavor is mild and pleasant. The texture is just a bit grainy, with the lovely chew that distinguishes a fine candy corn. So hands down, it’s better than Brach’s. But it is fair to ask: is it FOUR TIMES better?
Brach’s candy corn is what I grew up with, and I must say I think it is quite fine. Unlike the Jelly Belly corn, Brach’s boasts “real honey” in the mix. The flavor is slightly more salty than Jelly Belly, and once someone says the word “honey” you’ll say, “Oh, yeah, it kinda does taste like honey,” although i suspect the actual amount of honey is infinitesimal. Real honey flavor doesn’t necessarily come from actual honey these days (cf. “natural flavors”).
Texture-wise, Brach’s is a bit more granular and gritty than Jelly Belly, with a more “full sweet” intensity. This is the quality that has made candy corn the Halloween treat so many hate on. But for me, it’s that mix of chewy and grainy and sweet that I love.
The Brach’s brand started as a family candy business back to the early 1900s. Then all the Brach family died or were killed in gruesome murders. In the 1980s, several changes in corporate ownership took their toll. Production moved to Mexico in 2001. Those were some dark days for Brach’s candy corn, when every bag seemed to be full of misshapen morsels pulled off the rejects line. Happily, Brach’s candy corn has turned the corner; the batch I sampled was quite an improvement. My impression is that the current owner of Brach’s, Ferrara Candy Co., is heavily investing in the whole candy corn line (more on that in a future review), and that has raised the quality.
Now, for our last contender, “generic” candy corn sold under the Rite Aid label. These are weird, let me just start with that. The shape is too angular, the orange is too reddish, they have a dull and listless look overall, and the taste…I can’t figure it out. More vanilla, less honey-salt. I will give these generic grains points on texture, though. The texture actually seems ok, maybe even smoother than the Brach’s. But something is seriously wrong with the production. Let’s have a close up:
How many pieces are actually in tact? Three? Four? Most of them have lost their white tip, and quite a few have split right down the center. This is such a mess that you can hardly call it candy corn. I would never put a bowl of this out on the table. Even at less than one-fifth the price of the gourmet Jelly Belly corn, this “generic” is no bargain.
Bottom line: if you’re eating for pure pleasure, splurge on the Jelly Belly’s. If you’re having a party, Brach’s is best. As for the generic, I have to give it my lowest ranking: fake candy corn.
If you’re interested in the back story, check out my candy corn history at TheAtlantic.com
*Jelly Bean Baby will be a familiar character to readers of CANDY: A CENTURY OF PANIC AND PLEASURE
Reviewers for both Booklist and Kirkus have awarded CANDY: A CENTURY OF PANIC AND PLEASURE the coveted star!
Kirkus (starred review):
“Though the subject matter may be fluffy, the treatment is substantive and significant, representing an important contribution to the literature about what, and how, we eat in 21st-century America.”
Read the full Kirkus review here
Booklist (starred review):
“…lively, engaging, and deliciously descriptive….With a helpful heaping of information in every verbal bite, this fascinating social and culinary history gives readers a deeper understanding of the powerful forces at work behind the brightly colored wrappers.”
Read the full Booklist review here
Perhaps you are aware of the tiny war being waged on the “ingredients” panel of your average processed food. The law requires that ingredients be listed. But every food processor knows that more and more consumers are wary of the multi-syllabic mystery chemicals that make possible the magic of modern food. So the food industry is very interested in what grad-student types call “semantics”: how things get named.
Controversies over naming go all the way back to the dawn of processed foods. One of the first had to do with a corn derivative that was having an image problem. The common name was “glucose,” but food reformers’ attacks had made consumers suspicious of an additive reputed to be concocted of arsenic, saw dust, and glue. So the corn industry came up with a much nicer sounding name: corn syrup.
I thought of this when I read about a new additive known to the trade as Verdad Power F80, a preparation developed by Dutch company Carbion Purac that is designed “preserve the freshness and flavor of a variety of fresh and ready-to-eat foods, including sauces, salads and bread.” No stranger to the label wars, Carbion Purac assures its customers that this additive can legally be named on ingredients lists by a much more benign title: fermented sugar.
Carbion Purac claims the additive is “natural” and the product of “minimal processing.” Something about “the latest in fermentation and spray-drying technology.” I don’t know what that means. But I do know what this means: “With Verdad Power F80 we …. can now offer food processors a greater choice of label-friendly ingredients.”
Maybe I’m being too curmudgeonly. Verdad Power F80 does seem to be less of a chemistry experiment than many other additives. So isn’t that a good thing? I’m not sure. Does a dose of “all-natural” preservatives really make it that much better to chow down on Twinkies and PopTarts?
Candy doesn’t grow on trees. You can make it with “natural” ingredients, but there’s nothing natural about it. It’s totally artificial, a product of human ingenuity, chemistry, food engineering, and a dash of whimsy. And since candy is completely artificial to begin with, it is free to be anything. Like, say, corn. Candy corn, I mean. No one thinks candy corn is actual corn, no matter the resemblance. And the flavor? How could we possibly say what candy corn should really taste like? Candy corn is about as unnatural as you can get.
Candy isn’t the only artificial food we eat, of course. But what I like about candy is how it is totally honest about its origins. You won’t find candy corn in the frozen food aisle.
So you’d think, given my enthusiasm for the fakeness of candy, that I’d be a huge fan of any sort of candy innovation. And I generally am. Then along comes something like M&Ms White Chocolate Candy Corn.
If candy is fake food, then M&Ms Candy Corn is fake squared: candy-flavored candy. It makes my mind spin a bit. Which would be a more pleasant sensation, I suppose, if I didn’t find M&Ms Candy Corn to be not only existentially troubling from a philosophical point of view, but also, from the point of view of candy eating, just plain nasty.
Look at the morsels: bigger than normal M&Ms, bulbous and swollen. The colors lack the shiny depths of the usual M&M glaze. Instead, we have a chalky white, a toxic yellow, and an orange that is trying too hard. I’ve got to conclude that the folks at Mars weren’t giving this candy their full attention; even the proud “m” that marks each bit is missing from many of these sad specimens.
As for the taste, let’s just admit that with the possible exception of Green&Black bars, plain white chocolate is not something anyone should have to eat, ever. Waxy, salty, and overwhelmingly vanilla, yes. Candy corn, no.
The bottom line is that these mutant M&Ms have nothing to do with candy corn at all. And the M&Ms know it. Just look at that poor Red M&M guy on the package, dressed up in an ill-fitting candy corn suit. He is obviously unhappy. He is thinking, “What the he88 am I doing in this candy corn outfit?” He knows it’s not right.
Candy corn may not be “natural,” but I will not shy from naming this awkward and bad-tasting M&M hybrid for what it is: a freak of nature.
Today, the Hostess Twinkie is the poster-cake for processed food that has gone over to the dark side. Some 35 ingredients, rumored to be sprayed into molds instead of baked, reputed to have the shelf-life of hardtack. But this is not how Hostess began.
Once upon a time, ladies would invite their lady friends over for tea. They would wear clever hats and thin gloves and pass fragile cups from which to sip ever so demurely. With the tea, there would be cakes. Any hostess who wanted to impress her friends, and avoid vicious post-tea party gossip, would want to be sure she served only the finest.
And so, the scandal depicted at this c. 1930 tea party: “What…You bought them?”
The ad’s headline seems ambivalent: is the speaker horrified by the fact that the hostess has purchased cakes for her guests? Or is she amazed that the cakes, having been exposed as store-bought, taste so very good as to belie their humble origins?
The small print rushes to clarify: Hostess Cakes are achieving enviable success because “their flavor..their texture…their dainty appearance have been a revelation to millions of women.” Hostess promises ease, deliciousness, and most important for a generation of women struggling to create the impression of total and effortless domestic mastery, “no baking failures…a cake you can serve with perfect confidence.”
Today we’re all going back to the kitchen to make “real food.” But our 1930s fore-mothers were not so much worried about “real” or “manufactured” or “fake” in their food. What they were worried about was the very real risk that a “real” cake made in their own oven might actually be a disaster. In this context, processed and manufactured food was a solution to a serious social problem. (Of course, you could probably also argue that women wouldn’t have considered this a problem until Hostess Cakes came along and encouraged them to start worrying…)
Of course, it took a generation of chemists and food engineers to transform something like that lovely coconut layer cake into today’s plastic-wrapped snack food. But even today, no one could call a Twinkie or a Ding Dong a “baking failure.”
Oreo cookies are going “Eco.” At least, that’s the way Mondelez is spinning their most recent patent application for a new process to give Oreos their dark chocolately color.
According to a report in Confectionery News,
“Mondelez has filed a patent for a method to give black cocoa powder its rich color using fewer environmentally damaging chemicals and no iron salts.”
Sounds pretty good, right? But here’s the kicker: this process also evidently results in an even more intensely colored black cocoa. In the patent application, Mondelez suggests the new process will mean Oreos can be made with “significantly less cocoa powder.” Sounds like the “Eco-Oreo” is really a “cheapo Oreo.”
Kind of reminds me of the last time I showered in a hotel. How much better it made me feel to re-use my towel, knowing it would help Marriott save the planet.