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Through twists and turns, ribbon candy makes a comeback


HUDSON–Ribbon candy wasn’t something Jim Vasilow intended to do when he reopened the family business in 2002.

“I watched them do it as a kid, and I knew how labor intensive it was,” he said in a recent interview. “But as word got out that we were opening a new store, the first question out of their mouths was: Oh, are you going to do the ribbon candy? Peanut butter filled ribbon candy was what my grandfather and uncle were renowned for. They did it all by hand. That’s crazy work, so I did some research.”

Ribbon candy is a pulled, hard candy that is shaped into flat, graceful, looped ribbons. Produced in a rainbow of colors punctuated with thick and thin stripes of contrasting colors, ribbon candy has a form both delicate and flamboyant that distinguishes it from other candies.

Making the ribbon candy is a demanding process that involves heating a sugar syrup to over 300 degrees in a large copper kettle, pouring 20 pounds of the recipe out onto a marble slab and mixing colors and flavors into the gooey mass as it cools just enough to handle, then stretching and pulling it as it hangs from a hook before forming it into a shape containing parallel strands of color and stretching it into the tendrils that will flatten into translucent ribbons as they are crimped. The process is physically demanding and requires the use of welding gloves to protect hands from the serious burns that any contact with the molten sugar will cause.

Mr. Vasilow realized he would need an essential piece of equipment, the machine that crimps the pliable ribbons of pliable taffy into a repeating rhythm of loops. That the crimper has not been made in 80 to 100 years tells you something about how rare the art of making this candy on an artisanal scale has become.

But he happened to see a listing for a machine online placed by a Minnesota candy maker who was going out of business. It needed to be sandblasted, and a number of components needed reworking, but eventually, it worked, said Mr. Vasilow.

Next he had to figure out how to use it, and for assistance, he found a consultant to the confectionery industry in Chicago and made an appointment. That was right after September 11, 2001, and Mr. Vasilow boarded the first outbound flight from Albany after the disaster. Returning with through security with a fairly large mass of metal was something of a nightmare, he said, but the trip was fruitful.

“We got the recipe down. We were able to replicate the color and get it thin enough and the right consistency. Once we had that down pat, we experimented with different flavors and learned to do the striping,”

Mr. Vasilow makes the peanut butter flavor his grandfather favored, along with a spice mix, cinnamon, anise, peppermint spearmint, and a lemon/orange blend. But an attempt at making clove flavored candy caused some trouble, when the candy makers used the same quantity of clove oil as they used of cinnamon oil, not realizing how concentrated the flavor was.

“We almost had to call 911,” said Mr. Vasilow. “It took our breath away. We had to scrap 50 pounds of hard candy. I tried tasting it and it almost took the skin off my tongue, it was so powerful. This is kind of like playing chemist without a license. Everything is trial and error.”

Today a relative who remembers Grandfather Vasilow’s recipe, which was lost after the first Vasilow’s Confectionary closed in 1969, confirms that the recipe the store uses today is the identical to the one used in the past.

The public seems to like what they taste. The candy makers sell all the ribbon candy they can make and are producing 15% more this year than last. Demand has been brisk and it looks like they’ll sell out again.

Ribbon candy is believed to have been invented by F.B. Wasburn of Brockton, Mass., around 1900, about the same time Mr. Washburn also introduced the first striped candy canes (for centuries they were plain white). And, yes, Jim Vasilow makes striped and twisted candy canes too, by hand.

Vasilows Confectionary is at 741 Columbia Street. The number is (518) 828-2717.

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