For my local food issue of Minnesota Monthly, now on newsstands, I took on the onerous task of sampling candy. I know I know, hard work… but if you want to know why I picked candy, besides the fact that its candy, the answer is this: Minnesotans have always excelled in the candy arts. For instance, did you know Frank Mars, of Mars Bars, M&Ms, Milky Way, etc., founded his candy company here in good old Minneapolis, and only later moved to Chicago? True! The Pearson’s nut roll is about to celebrate its 100th year of Minnesotan candy-making, but a hundred years ago the Twin Cities were home to dozens of candy companies, making candy bars with great, long-gone names like Duck Lunch and Annabelle’s Big Hunk. (For more, read an old article I wrote on the Twin Cities’ rich chocolate bar history).
Why Minnesota and candy? Because of our great railroads, our milling and manufacturing base, and our proximity to critical ingredients like beet sugar and butter. (If you look at other historical chocolate hubs, like Switzerland, or Belgium, you quickly see that growing chocolate is not what makes a chocolate production center; already-made chocolate is fragile, so it tends to be made where it’s consumed (say, Europe or North America) and not where it’s grown (say, Africa or Central America). But, Minnesota is still a candy powerhouse! A little sampling of the treats featured in the magazine:
Mademoiselle Miel Honey Bon-Bons
Made by Susan Brown, a lifelong honey artist who works installing non-honey art at the Walker. Brown, who has won multiple Minnesota State Fair awards for her honey-baking skills, told me that her passion for honey took root when she was growing up in Wisconsin. “I started eating honey when I was young because I was sort of a sugar-head, and wanted to get away from straight refined sugar. My mom was a professional chef, so I learned a lot from her.” So much, in fact, that Brown became a professional chef herself, eventually becoming the pastry chef at Stillwater’s Dock Café. Brown’s passion for honey-baking led to a passion for bees: She’s currently on the board of the Minnesota Hobby Beekeeper’s Association, and keeps her own hive of bees in downtown St. Paul, on the Ramsey County Government Center West building. So, what do you get if you take someone with a highly developed sense of aesthetics, a passion for bees and honey, and a background as a pastry chef? Mademoiselle Miel honey bon-bons! A little dome of super-dark chocolate gilt with a few romantic flakes of edible-gold leaf, and in the center a little burst of local Ames Farm honey. The sensation of eating one starts deep and dark, explodes into a flowery, winey aspect, and then comes together in a symphony of notes from the edges of the natural world—the dark forest-aspect of the barely sweetened chocolate, the lilting melodic face of sunshine and flowers, as bees see it. They’re available at Heartland and Golden Fig, and evidently are given to lucky guests of the Chambers and W hotels in downtown Minneapolis. Brown told me she hopes to make a run of chocolates from her own beehives sometime this summer, and if the chocolates take off she can even see setting up more hives and having utterly specific boxes of chocolates. Perhaps a Walker sculpture garden honey-hive?
BT McElrath Chocolate Bars
BT McElrath is a chocolate company that operates out of the old factory near the U, where Wheaties were invented. Founded by a local chef, Brian McElrath, who was once in charge of the New French Café and Faegere’s, McElrath is doing more than anyone in the country to bring affordable chocolate bars into the culinary present. They’re around four or five bucks each, everywhere, including Lunds, Kowalski’s, the Co-ops—but if you’ve never had one and care about chocolate bars, you need to drop everything and try one. The Salty Dog, which has sea salt and toffee pieces, is the ultimate in sophisticated everyday luxury: The crunchy flecks of salt accent the dark chocolate’s deep and savory aspects, while the buttery toffee bits bring forward the lighter coffee and flower notes. It’s a great yin and yang of deep and thoughtful flavor at a price that allows you to get them on days-not-your-birthday.
Another newcomer, newly making caramel! Caramel. The ancient Midwestern art of cooking sugar till it turns brown, blending it with butter, and giving it to people you love. Okay, it was originally a French art, but I think of it as our art now. And my favorite practitioner of this art currently is Sweet Jules Gifts—a company consisting of a pair of sisters, Hope Klocker and Jules Vranian. The surname of Vranian may seem familiar to local restaurant-hounds, and yes, she is married to chef Steve Vranian (a protégé of Jermiah Tower, currently cooking at Gianni’s Steakhouse in Wayzata); but Jules Vranian has always been a cook as well, most recently as a pastry chef and a Cordon Bleu instructor. One bite and you can tell that these are the caramels of a professional talent—they’re so creamy, so rich, so echoingly caramel-flavored. Why? I’ve actually seen caramels made, and to make them in the old-fashioned way is a painstaking, difficult, all-hand-labor process, which is what these two sisters do. Hope Klocker told me that they don’t use any additives or stabilizers (which is what big-scale caramel producers have to do) and just rely on Land O’Lakes butter, cream, and sugar. Public-policy minded people will want to note that Sweet Jules is one of the new companies coming out of the North Minneapolis food-business incubator Kindred Kitchen (kindredkitchen.org). Everyone else will want to note that it’s a sweet time to be a Minnesotan with a sweet tooth!