Following the exits of Brach's and Fannie May, the Chicago area lost another major candy manufacturer in January, when the American Licorice Company—maker of Red Vines, Sour Punch straws, and Super Ropes—pulled the plug on its 250,000-square-foot factory in south suburban Alsip. But while contractors broke down equipment among Dumpsters filled with enormous clumps of fused red licorice whips, a sweet aroma hung about the echoing plant like a ghost.
This was no olfactory remnant of processed corn syrup, Big Candy's favorite sweetener. It was the smell of real sugar, browning in a room on the second floor, where the company once made the pastel-coated licorice candies called Snaps. Katie Das and an assistant were boiling a mixture of sugar, honey, rice syrup, ginger, pistachios, and imported fleur de sel in a copper kettle for a 50-pound batch of salt caramels.
Since July, Das, a 38-year-old native of Ukraine, has leased the space to make her Das Caramelini caramels—mostly by hand, but with a bit of help from a 70-year-old candy-wrapping machine she calls Steve. Available in varieties like Chinese Plum and Cafe Cortado, the sweets are a departure from the traditional Breton salt caramels they're based on. But these aren't brash New World knockoffs, either. The flavors are delicate, well integrated into the smooth, buttery caramel and given a boost by the salt's natural flavor-enhancing properties. There's an extra reward in the occasional satisfying mineral crunch of a salt crystal.
Das immigrated to Cleveland in 1992 at age 21. She didn't speak English but adapted quickly, working at a pizza joint alongside a bunch of 17-year-olds. "I learned English the Beavis and Butt-head way," she says. She already had three years of college under her belt, so it took her only two to earn a degree in food science from Ohio State. There she married Dhruba Das, a New Delhi native who was the TA in her new-product-development class. Upon graduating, both were recruited by Kraft to work in research and development at the company's Glenview campus.
Das worked on products like Kraft Ranch Dressing With Bacon, but she was restless. Hoping to transfer to brand management, she took a leave of absence to earn an MBA at the University of Chicago. "The aspect of marketing and human behavior was something I wanted to learn," she says. After returning to Kraft, though, she found it difficult to break into the marketing side of the business, and began to feel conflicted.
"It was sort of soulless for me," she says. "Instead of enjoying food and celebrating food, you're trying to make money on it by putting corn syrup in everything. It really contributed to the notion of filling yourself instead of enjoying your life through food."
She took a job as a marketing manager in new product development at Wrigley—"I learned a lot about candy marketing and consumer behavior when it comes to indulgence"—but started thinking about doing something for herself. "It's like getting malaria. It just comes back to you all the time. I have to do something of my own."
Dedicated travelers and home cooks, Das and her husband collected regional food products. "We weren't going to restaurants," she says. "We were going to the grocery stores and going through the shelves." While they were staying in a bed-and-breakfast in the medieval French town of Guérande, their hostess prepared caramels with fleur de sel harvested from the nearby salt marshes for which the region is famous. Das went down the street and introduced herself to a broker who buys the salt from the paludiers, artisans who harvest the fine, flaky fleur de sel from the surface of the salt pans and then the coarser sel gris (gray salt), formed as the water evaporates.
In the summer of 2006 they started Das Foods, importing salt from Guérande along with red and black Hawaiian sea salt and pink Himalayan rock salt. Looking for a way to showcase the products at a benefit for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Das began experimenting with the caramel recipe her hostess had given her in France. She tinkered for a couple months before coming up with four recipes: lavender, lemon and honey, orange and honey, and chocolate walnut. The couple didn't originally intend to market the candies, but they proved so popular Das launched the caramels last January.
She and her 20-year-old assistant, Ryan Keebler, the son of a former American Licorice mechanic, make two or three batches each production day, heating the sugar, honey, and rice syrup and adding butter and cream to kick-start caramelization. Eight different varieties are flavored with combinations of natural ingredients like lavender oil, lemongrass, citrus zest, coffee beans, dried Chinese plum, cardamom, ancho chile powder, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorn; these are added near the end of the process so they don't cook off. When the temperature reaches between 245 and 260 degrees, Keebler pours dollops of the caramel onto a cooling table to test its ability to set. Das has a refractometer for measuring the hot caramel's moisture content, but she usually relies on Keebler. "Ryan is a lot better than my refractometer," she says. "Ryan is like the human refractometer." Once the caramel sets in a wide sheet, they sprinkle it with more salt and cut it into long rectangular ropes, which are fed into the wrapping machine. If there's too much moisture in the air, they have a sticky mess on their hands and Steve rebels. "We do a daily prayer to Steve so that he works and treats us well, with dignity and respect," says Das. Once the caramels are wrapped they're boxed by hand, 12 to 15 pieces per.
Das works for herself now—she's pounded the pavement to get her caramels on shelves in places like Whole Foods, Intelligentsia, Sam's, and Pastoral, and makes the deliveries herself. She's already planning to launch another line of sweets based on a recipe from a different part of the world. But she's keeping the idea to herself for now.v
For more on food and drink—including video of Das and Keebler making caramels—see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.