I Want Candy

Despite my peeping about Easter being my favorite holiday, how I love all the frills and frippery and fakey grass, blah blah, this year the Easter Bunny kind of laid an egg. Maybe not as far as the kids were concerned – Celeste and our three visiting juvenile friends from Brooklyn still got baskets turgid with fuzzy chicks and amusing toys and chocolate and jelly beans, and prodigal son Zachary, spending his junior year abroad, got an Easter treat befitting a 21-year-old reading classics at Oxford: a copy of an audacious first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  But all parents know that the primary reason to overload kids with candy at Easter and Halloween is to benefit said parents, who will be tiptoeing across darkened children’s rooms late at night for weeks to come, palming through the beribboned baskets or plastic jack-o-lanterns for a handful of Reese’s miniatures or malted milk balls, girding themselves for daylight’s less-than-sweet aspects of adult responsibility.

Thus in the two decades since I became a mother my Easter palate has become more selective, since junk candy from Walgreen’s is not what I want when I ransack the baskets as my offspring snore gently in their beds: I want the See’s Candy decorated chocolate buttercream egg, heavy as a hand grenade, to hack my way through in the privacy of my midnight kitchen, or a few post-modernist truffles from Joseph Schmidt, San Francisco’s answer to Willie Wonka. When Easter approacheth I have been known to drive all over the Bay Area and pore through catalogs and troll the Internet for the most adorable, delectable treats, tucking them into papier-mâché eggs and crinkly cellophane bags sealed with baby animal stickers in my quest not just for the eventuality of pleasurable parental consumption, but to be the cleverest, most imaginative Easter Bunny ever.

But not this year. This year, the Easter Bunny spent the month of March on post-operative nursing duty, for her husband is parked on the couch with the television remote and two new, virtually unused titanium knees. When she is not plumping pillows and doling out oxycontin the Easter Bunny has been driving the girls chorus carpool every afternoon, boiling rice and chicken breasts for a dog with acute digestive problems, and writing thank-you notes to high school admissions directors at 2 a.m.. Not to mention the depressing stress of starting the South Beach Diet (who cares about no starch and no booze? The trauma is no sugar!) to prepare for the publication of my book about my lifelong, frantic consumption of sugar. To make things even more challenging from the candy-foraging perspective, trusty and tasty See’s closed their flagship store – a mere five-minute stroll from the tired Easter Bunny’s house (See’s, how could you? Why do you think I moved to this neighborhood?!). Joseph Schmidt, too, went into retirement and locked the doors of his Wonkaesque shop.

So this year’s baskets, architected via Walgreen’s and a single rushed trip to Target, were kind of lame. Lots of chocolate that tasted like wax. Jelly beans with no flavor whatsoever. Funny — mediocre candy is not like mediocre wine: it does not start to taste better the more you have. Okay, so I was cheating on my diet, and it wasn’t even worth the guilt. If you’re going to cheat, you might as well cheat with some real candy with quality control. Using the excuse that I had essential errands to run for invalids and teenagers, I escaped my house and headed for The Candy Store.

The Candy Store opened in my neighborhood a couple of years ago. It looks like an apothecary designed by the Jetsons, with a stylized black-and-blue logo and glass jars lining the walls, all of them filled with something fabulous, like chunks of toffee rolled in peanut butter and then dipped in milk chocolate, or gummy butterflies, or green-apple gum balls. It’s fun just knowing that there’s a dedicated candy store three blocks from my house, and the owners, Diane and Brian Campbell, are so friendly and good-natured they tend to offer you a sample if you stare too long at one of the jars on display.

I usually leave with a handful of mixed Swiss Fruits because they look like doll house food: tiny dimpled oranges and blushed green pears and miniature bananas speckled microscopically with brown. But today I wanted something really great, not just the usual, something that would override the taste of carnauba wax from the Brach’s jelly beans I choked down by the handful last night. The first thing I noticed at The Candy Store was a display of coconut & Hawaiian pink salt brittle. Brian makes the brittle in small batches, toasting the organic coconut he uses, and I could smell it even through the cellophane bags.

The Candy Store's handmade brittle

As I chatted with Diane at the counter while paying for my brittle, she noticed me eyeing a polka-dotted box of something wrapped in waxed paper. “Those are amazing,” she told me. “They’re marshmallows covered in a salted caramel with a little cocoa and three kinds of roasted nuts. A woman in the East Bay makes them.” She continued under her breath. “I think they’re my favorite candy in the store right now. No – I think these may be the best candy I’ve ever had.”

Diane knows her candy, and even though they were pricey at $3 a piece, with that endorsement I had to try one.  I took my bag of high quality candy, picked up a cup of tea to go around the corner, and drove off to do my real errands.

Ten minutes later I pulled my car over to the curb so that I could call Diane back at The Candy Store. I’d already broken into the coconut brittle, which was brilliant, the crunch and toastiness of the coconut and blonde brittle balanced with savory sweetness. But the caramel-covered marshmallow – something about its combination of textures and flavors, the slight bitterness of the dark, nut-flecked caramel with its hint of chocolate against the airy, melting marshmallow, was staggering. I’d eaten it in one bite and unlike most sweets, it was so completely satisfying that was all I needed. That one perfect mouthful.

“You were right,” I told Diane on the phone. “That marshmallow-caramel thing ties for the most amazing piece of candy I’ve ever had”—I thought quickly to the unforgettable rose-flavored Turkish delight my family bought a couple of years ago at a gas station not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Termessos, a candy so tender and perfumed and beautifully pure I would have wept except that I was too busy elbowing the rest of my family away from the box as they wolfed it down.  Later we learned that we’d stumbled into the village renowned for making the best Turkish delight in the country. Now my other best candy is right around the corner from my house. Even at $3 a pop, it’s a lot cheaper than going back to Turkey.

BonBonBar's SCN Caramallows and my grandmother's toy tea set

You too can buy that marshmallow-caramel thing, called a Salted Chocolate Nut Caramallow and made by Nina Wanat of BonBonBar, through The Candy Store. You can buy Brian Campbell’s brittles, too, if you’re lucky – they tend to sell out the day they’re made.

Coconut & Hawaiian Pink Salt Brittle reposing before it disappears

And Nina Wanat, who left the film industry and then law school to start making really good candy, has a blog about dessert called Sweet Napa, where you can find out more about BonBonBar. After the salty-sweet SCN Caramallow and the coconut brittle, and my fond memories of that rosy Turkish delight, I’m ready to try Nina’s recipe for a rosewater-flavored pavlova.

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