Gourmet chocolates, old-fashioned candies, and other homemade confections a “taste” above the rest…
What single creation has the power to convey feelings of appreciation, congratulations, sympathy, good luck, well wishes and, especially around this time of year, love and adoration? Why, candy, of course!
In fact, our society is so enamored with its sweet sentiments andtantalizing taste that the U.S. Census Bureau reports national sales of chocolate and other sugary confections exceed $22 billion annually, while the average American consumes about 25 pounds of candy each year. But what makes one piece stand apart from the rest? According to third-generation confectioner and chocolatier Amy Wertheim, it’s quality ingredients and a little TLC.
A Homemade Operation
Indeed, for three generations and nearly seven decades, those two factors have been the driving force behind the Wertheim family’s success as owners of R.G.W. Candy Company in Atlanta, Illinois. Using many of the same turn-of-the-century recipes as Amy’s grandfather—the company’s founder and namesake, Robert “Bob” Glenn Wertheim—did when he established the business in 1948, R.G.W. Candy hand-makes, packages and ships nearly 3,000 pounds of chocolates, caramels, toffee, bark, brittle and more throughout central Illinois and across the country every year.
“Everything we use is how it was made over a hundred years ago,” says Amy. “There are no preservatives, flavorings, additives; it literally is what’s required to make the candy and nothing extra.” “You have to be very precise in your temperatures and the way you handle it,” adds her father, Tom Wertheim, who has been cooking up the company’s time-tested treats and inventing new creations—inspired by family, friends and the imagination—for more than 60 years. “It’s not rocket science; it’s a lot of luck, really.”
Having perfected their technique through years of practice, the father-daughter duo spends several hours each week carefully stirring kettles full of caramel, dipping chocolates, and experimenting with a variety of ingredients inside the shop, located just outside of Lincoln on the family’s farm. Their menu features more than a dozen delectable offerings, from dark chocolate-dipped sea salt caramels, mints and truffles to buttery toffee, peanut clusters and pistachio bark—each of them a labor of love.
Though every piece of candy has a unique twist, most of the company’s recipes begin with the same crucial ingredient: chocolate, one of the trickiest elements to manipulate, says Tom. “If you’re using a true chocolate, it takes some pretty special handling to end up the way you want it, and it’s real easy to mess it up,” he notes, adding that most of the dipping and baking chocolate available in stores is loaded with waxes, preservatives and other additives.
Taking pride in using only top-quality ingredients, the Wertheims purchase their chocolate wholesale from the Chicago-based Blommer Chocolate Company, the largest cocoa bean processor and chocolate manufacturer in North America. After receiving the chocolate in 10-pound bars, Tom and Amy get to work breaking down the massive slabs into smaller pieces that can be thrown into a tempering machine, which melts the chocolate into a rich, velvety cocoa coating and maintains it at the exact temperature required for dipping.
“A lot of folks, when they work with chocolate, will find that when their candy sets up, it’s got kind of a white, grayish… [color] through it,” Amy describes. “That’s because the chocolate was either too hot or too cold. That causes what’s called bloom,” which is the primary concern of every chocolatier during production. Bloom can form as result of heat-induced changes in the chocolate’s fat content or the action of moisture on its sugar ingredients. Though safe to eat, the unsightly crystals limit its shelf life, as well as create an unappetizing surface texture.
But with a tempering machine eliminating the possibility of bloom, after
preparing the chocolate, the Wertheims can focus on the fillings of their dipped desserts, with caramel among the most popular.
One Piece at a Time
Exemplifying simplicity at its finest, R.G.W.’s caramels consist of just three ingredients: butter, sugar and glucose. Unlike most larger candy manufacturers, the Wertheims believe in the old adage “less is more.”
“[Big manufacturers] have to use preservatives, because they have to have a long shelf life,” Amy notes, explaining one of the primary differences between mass-produced and gourmet candy. “A lot of them have flavorings or additives to get a certain flavor or texture. So if you were to pick up a bag of caramels, you’re going to see anywhere from 17 to 21 ingredients. But it only takes three ingredients to make a caramel.”
According to her, the lack of preservatives in the Wertheims’ candies not only improves their taste, it ensures freshness—and nothing in the R.G.W. Candy shop is more than two weeks old. This keeps Tom on his toes, cooking up caramel in 50-pound batches using hand-hammered copper kettles that have been in the family for decades. The resulting amber-colored confection is laid out on Tom’s self-designed, temperature-controlled table to be cut into squares for dipping and wrapping. Amy estimates that each batch yields about 1,600 pieces of caramel, which take “about three hours to wrap… or one good movie.”
The process is repeated with slight variations for R.G.W.’s other delicacies. Toffee and brittle are stirred, poured, flipped, cut and hand-pulled into thin pieces; bark is stirred, poured, spread, sprinkled with berries, nuts or mints, then scored and broken apart. Ingredients like home-roasted peanuts, pretzels and mints are individually dipped in milk, dark, white or a combination chocolate before being prepared for distribution. During peak season, reinforcements—family and friends eager to earn payment in the form of candy—help individually wrap and pack the completed confections, filling up to 500 tins in a single day.
A Taste of Nostalgia
The Wertheims’ “off-the-cuff” cooking and always-fresh, gourmet goodies have kept customers coming back for years, often looking for a taste of nostalgia. “It may be somebody says, ‘I remember so-and-so used to make this for me…’ That’s how a lot of our candies have evolved over time,” Amy explains. “People have asked for something they remember their grandmother making.”
One such conversation led to the development of R.G.W.’s top-selling white chocolate peppermint bark. “Most peppermint bark is a white chocolate with peppermint candy sprinkled on top, on top of dark chocolate. We actually take peppermint candy and manipulate it to make it into a different form, and combine it with the white chocolate. And we leave the dark chocolate off… When people taste it, they’re always surprised by the flavor and the crunch and the texture,” Amy describes. “That’s because my hairdresser said her grandma used to make peppermint bark with white chocolate only; she didn’t like the dark chocolate. So we proceeded to try to create something that could bring back that memory for her.”
While working in a real-life candyland comes with plenty of perks, for Amy and Tom, meeting their customers and helping to evoke those sweet memories is their greatest joy. “I thoroughly enjoy [making candy],” Tom says, “and I enjoy people… which is kind of neat if you can do something you enjoy.”
Close Encounters of the Candy Kind
Another enjoyable part of the job? Hosting tours and watching guests of all ages experience that feeling of being “kids in a candy shop.” “We have… busloads of people who come to tour the shop,” Amy says. “We let them play on the candy machine, and then they’ll fold the brittle with us.”
The Wertheims’ candy shop also hosts parties and is available to cater weddings and other special events. Though the majority of its sales come in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the company ships all across the country and accommodates tour groups year-round. A complete menu and order form is available on the R.G.W. Candy Company Facebook page. For more information, call (309) 830-4361 or email [email protected]. a&s