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Candy corn is back, and trendier than ever

Adding candy corn gives colorful boost Rice-Krispie-like treats. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times Media

Adding candy corn gives a colorful boost to Rice-Krispie-like treats. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 25, 2012 11:24AM

“What could be more American than Halloween and candy corn?” asks Curtis Gamble, chef of Bread & Wine, 3732 W. Irving Park Road.

The yellow-, orange- and white-striped kernels may be America’s most controversial confection. For some, October wouldn’t be the same without a bag of candy corn. Others loath the sweet stuff, and think handing it out to trick-or-treaters risks waking up to find your house draped in toilet paper.

Yet candy corn returns each autumn, along with falling leaves and football.

“We sell the most of it at Halloween,” says Bill Kelley, vice chairman of Jelly Belly Candy Co., which makes candy corn in North Chicago year-round — even in different colors and shapes for other holidays — and last year added a candy corn-flavored jelly bean to its official list of flavors.

Today, candy corn is trendier than ever. Not only are local chefs experimenting with candy-corn-imbued desserts, but other manufacturers have capitalized on the concept, producing new sweets on the theme.

At Bread & Wine, Gamble steeps candy corn in cream for his autumnal panna cotta topped with graham-cracker crumbles and caramel corn.

“It works,” he says, “because the smooth creaminess of the panna cotta sort of mutes the super sweetness of the candy corn and caramel corn.”

As a seasonal treat at Zest Bistro & Lemon Tree Grocer in Downers Grove, Pastry Chef Laurie McNamara revels in the candy’s sweetness. She melts candy corn into marshmallow cream, and studs it with still more candy corn as a filling for pumpkin-spiced whoopie pies, then further sweetens the dessert with a scoop of candy-corn-flavored ice cream.

Introduced this fall, candy-corn M&Ms, large round candies with a white-chocolate filling, come in the familiar colors but taste less like the classic confection than like artificial butter with a hint of suntan lotion.

JarBee Coffee, a McHenry roasting company known for offbeat blends such as Maple Bacon and Peanut Butter Cup, now offers Witches Brew, candy corn-flavored arabica.

And to great Internet notoriety, Nabisco marketed a short run of candy-corn Oreo cookies in September. They’re vanilla sandwich cookies with a yellow- and orange-colored filling but good luck finding any. They were sold exclusively at Target stores, and none of those we checked last week had any left. Calls to both Target headquarters and the brand’s parent company, Deerfield-based Mondolez International (the new spinoff of Kraft that got its confectionery and baking businesses), found us no cookies, either, so we can’t say what they taste like.

Oreos spokeswoman Caroline Lainio was unable to provide any statistics for how many of the limited-edition cookies were produced or if any are still available. According to Lainio, the century-old brand added candy-corn cookies to its lineup to relate to consumers in “fresh, new relevant ways.”

Yet candy corn is even older than Oreos, dating to the late 1880s, when candymaker George Renninger created it at the Ph. Wunderle Candy Manufacturing Co. of Philadelphia (since absorbed into Nestle). Not long afterward, Goelitz Confectionary Co., the firm that ultimately became Jelly Belly, began producing the candy.

“We think the company was founded making candy corn,” says Kelley, 71, whose family founded Goelitz in 1898 in Cincinnati. Their candies were such a success that they expanded to Chicago in 1903 and 10 years later moved to the factory in North Chicago, where they became America’s premier maker of candy corn.

Kelley says that the formula for the candy, a category called “mellocreme,” remains the same as it was in the 19th century. “When I started with the company,” 46 years ago, he says, “it was all we made.”

Today machines do what was once done by hand, but the method is identical: Sugar, corn syrup and water are cooked together and whipped into a fondant with mazetta.

“Mazetta is really a form of marshmallow, which gives the candy its creamy structure, and it makes the little white tip opaque,” Kelley says.

Trays filled with cornstarch are pressed with a form to mold the kernel shapes, 1,200 candies to a tray, and the candy deposited into the impressions. “First white, then orange, then yellow on top, in layers,” says Kelley.

In the old days, the molds were filled by hand by men called “stringers” who walked backward down the line with kettles of molten candy. “They basically poured the candy into the molds,” he says.

After molding, the trays go to a drying room and the candy is separated from the cornstarch — which will be reused — and finally shined up with a confectionery glaze. The molding machine holds about 200,000 pounds of cornstarch, Kelley says, and although the ingredients are different, the same trays also are used for forming jelly beans.

While Jelly Belly has a factory in Thailand as well as facilities here and California, Kelley says all their candy corn is American-made.

Because what could be more American than Halloween and candy corn?

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

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