Handmade chocolates: confessions of a third-generation chocolate candy maker

Every Thanksgiving, I turn into a candy maker for the weekend. I make lots of it. Except for peanut brittle, it all involves chocolate. I make handmade chocolates: caramels, toffee, truffles, up to six flavors of creams, and fudge. I have at least seven fudge recipes (let's see: chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter, banana, egg nog, lemon and pumpkin), but I've never made more than two a year.

I made my first batch of caramels more than thirty years ago. It turned out pretty well. I also made some toffee--not quite as good, but still satisfying. As far as I'm concerned both kinds are best dipped in milk chocolate. So I started to experiment with dipping candy in chocolate the following year (what a disaster!), and tried creams and fudge not long after that. I ruined nearly everything I touched for about fifteen years before I finally started to get the hang of it. Now, except for the occasional mistake, I make the best chocolate candy for miles around. My handmade chocolates taste better than anything I've found in any store anywhere, even specialty candy stores.

A ten-pound block of coating chocolate
A ten-pound block of coating chocolate
Chocolate melting in a double boiler
Chocolate melting in a double boiler

Why did I persist so long? Because I can't remember a time before my parents started making candy. I think I must have been about five. When I was old enough to become involved in the production of handmade chocolates, my job was to roll creams and fudge into balls. Dad made most of the candy and Mom dipped it in chocolate. Eventually four sibs followed. I added putting finished pieces into paper candy cups to my responsibilities, but for some reason I didn't seek to learn how make it.

I was clear across the country in graduate school when I realized that if I ever again wanted the best chocolate candy in the world before Christmas, I'd have to learn to make it myself. So I set out to become a chocolatier like my parents, but at long distance. Every year I'd make it, be disappointed with it, and take a bunch home at Christmas to get advice on what to do differently. By that time, of course, my folks were interested in getting rid of the year's production, not in making more. I think I did get back before Christmas for lessons two or three times. My sibs all had the sense to learn before they got so far from home.

So how did Dad and Mom get involved in handmade chocolates? Because Dad's parents had been chocolatiers before him.

Dad can't remember a time when Grandma didn't make candy, but he does remember the first time she tried to dip something in chocolate. It was 1932, and it turned out disastrously. She melted some chocolate, dipped some candy in it, set it aside, and waited for it to harden again. When it did, it had all turned an ugly gray and tasted as bad as it looked.

Fondant syrup cooling. It has to be worked with a fondant paddle.
Fondant syrup cooling. It has to be worked with a fondant paddle.
Dipping in process
Dipping in process
Coating an individual piece of candy
Coating an individual piece of candy
Making a design with the chocolate dripping from my thumb
Making a design with the chocolate dripping from my thumb

Chocolate (for making candy, not a beverage) is chemically so temperamental, so easy to ruin, that it astounds me how anyone ever had the patience even to invent it. Our whole family went to the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania at a time when they still conducted tours. The ingredients went into a boxcar- sized mixing (um, bowl doesn't sound right) whatchamacallit and then had to be stirred constantly for, I think, days--certainly longer than any team of people could stir the stuff at home. The temperature has to be just right, and then when it gets poured out, it has to cool quickly. Otherwise it will bloom, that is, turn the ugly gray my grandmother got. In other words, all the cocoa butter that has taken so long to mix in with everything else will separate.

Of course, as soon as someone at home melts chocolate, it has to be melted to a particular temperature range (not too hot; chocolate burns easily), and then tempered (cooled to a noticeably lower temperature, but still remaining liquid) before it's safe to dip anything in it. That's because once the dipped candy is put aside, it has to set fairly quickly before the cocoa butter has a chance to escape, turn the candy ugly, and leave little air pockets where it used to be.

Grandma didn't know that her first time, but a little later she saw an ad in the paper for a chocolate dipper. Realizing she could learn from experts, she answered it and got the job at a place called Morrow's Nut House. Dad recalls that it was well named; it had a tremendous assortment of nuts both in the counter and behind it. The chief candy maker had quite a temper and terrorized nearly everyone, but not Grandma, who was used to dealing calmly with her irascible father-in-law. One time when the candy maker stalked through the shop with a butcher knife, she just calmly told him to put it down, and he did.

Eventually he was fired and decided to open his own store. He hired Grandma to sit in the shop window and dip the candy in chocolate. Shortly after that, she figured that selling candy from home would make a nice income supplement. She taught Grandpa how to make the candy, and she dipped it after work. Dad, being eight or nine at the time, was set to work rolling it into balls.

After a while, it became apparent that making hundreds of pound of candy was too much work for spare time income. The whole family was too tired to enjoy their own handiwork. I can think of all kinds of reasons why they would decide not to open a shop and become full time chocolatiers, but I don't know what theirs were. I remember Dad telling me that they notified all of their customers that they would not be selling candy any more--and then telling all of the close friends on the list not to worry, that they'd still make some once a year and give it as gifts.

Dad went into the army after he graduated from high school, then after the war, went to college, got married, went to graduate school, and started his career. My grandparents were still making handmade chocolates in their basement as a yearly hobby. I have no idea if Dad and Mom had any opportunity to make it with them, but after they had a couple of kids (and felt somewhat secure anyway!), they decided to become candy makers themselves.

This is what "bloom" looks like. I would have been almost happy with these the first 15 years I tried.
This is what "bloom" looks like. I would have been almost happy with these the first 15 years I tried.
That's more like it! The green is actually white chocolate, colored and flavored with mint.
That's more like it! The green is actually white chocolate, colored and flavored with mint.
A fuller assortment.
A fuller assortment.

So I'm a third-generation candy maker, and so are all my sibs. Most of the next generation is grown up now and making the world's best chocolate candy--many of them in my parents' basement. That makes four generations of expert chocolatiers! My nephew Matt Guion made a video about our family tradition of handmade chocolates, which I am incorporating into this article.

My generation (mostly my youngest sister) has tried to introduce new things to the lineup of candies. I remember my delight at finding a peanut brittle recipe and realizing that I could take something home at Christmas that wouldn't already be there in abundance. Not long afterward, one of my high school teachers provided a much better recipe, and peanut brittle has joined the annual lineup ever since. Other sibs have come up with the truffles, five kinds of the fudges, nougat (which I have not attempted yet), and several new techniques for marking the candies so we can tell one from the other after the chocolate sets.

Having a long-standing family tradition like handmade chocolates explains in part why my family has been so close for so long. We've had all of the personality clashes growing up that any other family has, but there is something about collaborating on something fun and wonderful (and in our case, making the best chocolate candy is but one of them) that enables us to transcend and get over them better than most.

Instructions for how to dip candy and other things in chocolate, see my articles How to Dip Candy etc. in Real Chocolate and How to Make Holiday Candy for Gifts and Entertainment Using Real Chocolate.



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Judy 6 years ago

Great article, brother-mine!

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