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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 10:01 am

A tasty visit to Candyland

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Tom Wertheim in his candy kitchen.

If you squint, the barren fields around the little homestead outside of Atlanta, Ill., north of Lincoln on I-55, could look a bit like the North Pole — at least when they’re covered with snow. The candy cane signs help, but the buildings’ blue paint job doesn’t exactly fit the traditional picture of Santa’s workshop.

Once inside the R.G.W. Candy Company’s manufacturing plant, headquarters and executive offices, though, any doubt vanishes. This might not be the North Pole, but it’s most definitely a Santa outpost.

Santa’s not here, but the man in the kitchen has to be one of his elves. True, he’s not very short, and he’s wearing a ball cap instead of a pointy hat. His shoes’ toes aren’t curly, either, but his close-cropped beard and merrily twinkling eyes are a dead giveaway.

His eyes really do twinkle. Tom Wertheim’s humorous outlook on life is perhaps his dominant characteristic, one that’s shared by his daughter and partner in candymaking, Amy. It’s an infectious characteristic — in fact, I described their company as I did because I knew it’d make them chuckle. It’s actually in a former machine shed, about the size of a three-car garage Their humor shows up in some of their products, such as “chocolate coal” — lumps of chocolate wrapped in black foil to put it stockings.

I met the Wertheim father and daughter team earlier this year at a symposium on Midwestern dessert traditions. (Yes, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.) All the presentations were interesting, many of historical, even political interest — from Nation of Islam bean pies (featured in the 4/17/08 RealCuisine article, “Full of beans”) to desserts made by pioneers. But the Wertheims had everyone laughing, and I immediately knew I wanted to write about them.

And their candy. Did I mention that it’s exceptionally delicious?

The R.G.W. Candy Company evolved from quasi-commercial beginnings. In 1948, ready cash was scarce, and so Robert Wertheim (Tom’s father and Amy’s grandfather) began making candy for bartering and to give as Christmas gifts. He used a 1908 Pease’s candy-making recipe book. Though his siblings were happy to eat their father’s candy, Tom was the only one who really enjoyed making it. Amy, alone among all the grandchildren, inherited that fascination with candy-making. “When Granddad was making candy, none of the grandkids were allowed in [his workshop],” says Amy. “Except me. Somehow I managed to worm my way in.”

Until eight years ago, the R.G.W. Candy Company was a seasonal business that started in late summer and ended after the holidays. That’s still their busiest time but now they make candy year-round, although both Tom and Amy have other jobs.

So the R.G.W. Candy Company remains small — and that’s how the Wertheims like it. “We do things the way they ran businesses in the early 1900s,” says Amy. That includes quality ingredients. The chocolate comes from Blommers of Chicago. (If you’ve ever been in the Windy City and suddenly were surrounded by a richly warm chocolate aroma, that’s Blommer’s you’re smelling.) “Those big candymakers get their flavorings and fillings in five-gallon buckets,” says Tom with an uncharacteristically sour look on his face. “And it never goes bad — it’s like plastic. Everything here is made from scratch.”

The contents of R.G.W.’s candy kitchen is confirmation: bottles of real vanilla extract, blocks of fresh butter, 20 lb. bags of cane sugar and bags of pecans. “Our caramels have three ingredients — butter, sugar and cream,” says Tom. “Commercial caramels have as many as 17 ingredients — mostly fillers or stabilizers and stuff like that.”

“This is small batch production,” Tom says proudly. “Ten — maybe fifteen pounds at a time.” Freshness is key to the quality of their candy, too: “Everything here is less than two weeks old,” says Amy. “We never sell anything older than that, ever!” Adds Tom, “A good caramel only lasts two weeks, then it’s dead.”

On the day I visited, Tom was hovering over a copper kettle, waiting for its contents of sugar syrup to reach the right temperature for peanut brittle. Small, round-bottomed copper kettles (small in terms of candy-making operations; these were about 18 inches to two feet in diameter) hung from the walls; those kettles have been in use since Tom’s father began making candy. While Tom, Amy and I chatted, he kept checking the syrup. At some point, Amy’s son, Nic, wandered in for no apparent reason, and the talk turned to his football playing. When Tom, checking the sugar syrup’s temperature one last time, added baking soda, butter and peanuts to the copper cauldron, Amy and Nic stood up, still chatting, began pulling on heatproof gloves, and took their places around a steel-topped table in a manner that told me they’d done this countless times before. Clearly, Nic hadn’t just wandered in.

That table was something new to me. Traditionally, candy has been made on marble slabs that stabilize temperature. The Wertheims’ original marble slabs were irretrievably contaminated by smoke in a fire that destroyed their original kitchen four years ago (and caused the move to the former machine shop) and so Tom designed and had a local metal-worker fabricate the temperature-controlled table. It’s adjusted by water — heated or cooled as needed — that circulates just under the steel surface.

Tom hooks the cauldron onto a chain suspended over the table’s center, then pours out the molten mass. Talking ceases, and everyone waits. Tom folds the brittle back onto itself a few times, then slices off hunks with a machete. Three generations of Wertheims grab pieces and start pulling. In minutes everything’s stretched and hardened. I eat a piece while it’s still faintly warm: it’s fantastic.

I have to say I’ve never been a candy fanatic. I’ve enjoyed it but never found it hard to resist. Still, driving home, with R.G.W.’s specialties by my side: peanut clusters, cinnamon-sugared pecans, caramels, incredible toffee, mixed berry bark, chocolate-covered mints, that wonderful brittle and — my favorite — the white-chocolate-covered sourdough pretzel bites, I couldn’t keep my hand out of the bag. They were right about the difference that freshness makes. By the time I passed Sherman, I’d had to remove temptation by tossing the bag into the back seat.

Presently, the R.G. W. Candy Company doesn’t have an outlet in the Springfield area during the holidays (they’re at the Sherman farmer’s market during the summer), but their Atlanta shop is open, and they will mail order. Contact them at 1865 2200th Street, Atlanta, Ill., 61723, telephone 217-648-2069 or 309-830-4361.

The topping on these bars make them half cookie/half candy. I’ve used many different nuts, including hazelnuts, walnuts and pecans; and different chocolates, from darkest bittersweet to white, in making them; but this combination of macadamia nuts and white chocolate is my favorite. Feel free to experiment: any kind(s) of nuts and chocolate will work. Hey, wait a minute — I’ve never thought of using a combination of different nuts and chocolates at the same time before.

In recipes that call for brown sugar, I almost always use dark brown sugar, because it’s more flavorful. There are a few exceptions, and the following recipe is one of them: the lighter, more delicate flavors of the white chocolate and macadamia nuts stand out better when using light brown sugar. If you are using other nuts and darker chocolate, you might prefer dark brown sugar.

MACADAMIA WHITE CHOCOLATE BARS

For the bottom layer:
½ c. unsalted butter, at
room temperature
½ c. light brown sugar
1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt

For the top layer:
2 large eggs
1 c. light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt ONLY if nuts are unsalted
1 c. white chocolate chips
1 c. macadamia nuts

Preheat the oven to 375°. In a mixer, food processor or large bowl, mix together the ingredients for the bottom layer until thoroughly combined. Press into an even layer on the bottom of a 9"x13" pan. Bake for 10 minutes, then cool to room temperature.

In a mixer, food processor, or by hand, whisk the eggs and brown sugar together until thick and smooth and then stir in the vanilla. Combine the baking powder and flour (and the salt, if using) and stir into the egg/sugar mixture. Stir in the nuts and white chocolate chips. If you are using a food processor, do this by hand so the nuts and chips don’t get chopped up. Spray the sides of the pan with cooking spray and then pour the top layer evenly over the bottom crust. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until just set. Cool and then cut into squares or triangles.

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