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By Wonka, for Wonka, Against Wonka: The Eugene J. Candy Co.

Fickelgrubers, Prodnoses, and Slugworths: modern candy "freak" Eugene J. reflects on the science behind the literary legend, Willy Wonka.

Freaks perhaps better resemble Dweebs than Nerds, though Dweebs are softer in the middle.

In 1964, beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to overwhelming critical acclaim. By 1971, the book had launched Willy Wonka as a bonafide cultural icon, with Gene Wilder’s famously oddball approach in the film adaptation as well as the birth of a most successful British candy brand.

Nestle acquired the brand in 1988 and Tim Burton directed a dark reboot of the film in 2005. We celebrated Dahl’s 100th birthday just last year. It’s fair to say that the legacy of Wonka is not going away. Each iteration of Dahl’s unique character spawns a new generation of fans, including those inspired to dabble in the alchemy of candy itself. I spoke to a mysterious nerd amongst these sugar-coated acolytes, Eugene J. of Eugene J. Candy Co. in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for his take on the freaky science behind the Wonka name.

You studied chemical engineering. Did you pursue that specifically so you could make candy?

I actually did not. Cooper Union was my dream school growing up. They offer an engineering program. I was already attending a specialized science high school (Bronx Science), and as I enrolled, I chose chemical engineering because I loved how chemistry explained things going on in the world and in the kitchen, while I was cooking and baking. It was interesting to understand why foods cooked faster in a pressure cooker or what reaction was happening with baking soda in flattening out my chocolate chip cookies.

I frequently baked as a kid and often watched shows on public television or the Food Network to learn techniques. I stumbled upon candy making shows, and the creativity of Jacques Torres was a big influence, as well as various programs on sugar work and how candies are made. Right around that time, I was starting my freshman year of college, and while living by myself in a small studio in Manhattan, I spent my evenings and weekends trying out various recipes. I didn’t plan my life to be a candy maker, but it became a really fun outlet for creativity and making delicious sweets, and everyone around me was very supportive and excited about it.

Are there a million failed experiments for every successful candy you make? How truly complex and difficult is the math and science of making some candy? Can any reasonably intelligent adult learn to make candy, or is even the equipment too specialized?

Basic candies such as hard candy, lollipops, marshmallows, toffees, and caramels are fairly straight forward with the right equipment (candy thermometer, mixer, molds) and recipes. But when I was starting out, my favorite candies were gummies and I tried every way possible to recreate the textures and flavors of my favorite kinds. I was inspecting ingredients lists and nutrition facts trying to figure out sugar and corn syrup proportions and amounts of gelatin and fruit juice to use. Since ingredients are listed in order of abundance, and gelatin is a protein that gets listed separately from carbohydrates (sugar/corn syrup) on the nutrition panel, I began with that as the basis of formulating some of my earliest gummy recipes. I thought the labels could reveal a recipe.

One of the problems I realized early on was that I was trying to recreate in my little kitchen products that are made on a commercial scale using specialized equipment (e.g., vacuum cookers) and very specific ingredients (i.e., corn syrups are specified by dextrose equivalence; gelatin, by bloom). What I learned was that I couldn’t recreate tough gummy candy textures by using store-bought Karo corn syrup and Knox gelatin. I could get something soft and plump, but it was in between a Haribo gummy bear and Jell-o gelatin texture. Switching over to commercially available ingredients helped, and then I had to tweak my recipes further so that I used as little water as possible to rehydrate the gelatin and attain the chewier texture.

There’s definitely a lot of math and science involved, but I think anyone with an interest and patience can figure it out. It’s mostly trial and error procedures, thinking of improvements and changing one variable at a time and tracking it through to see how it affects a recipe. Sometimes it’s frustrating because the result after all the effort is not what you anticipate, but the reward is that you learn from what happened and you prove or disprove a hypothesis.

There’s some literature (cook books, text books, and online) and courses available to learn recipes and techniques, but I enjoy taking the difficult journey of trying to figure things out on my own. In the end, I may find exactly the same things as confectioners of the past; but there’s a lot to explore and possibly discover along the way that I may not have, were I trained to do things by very specific methods.

The first candy you made is F. G. Freaks — the F.G. is a nod to one of Willy Wonka’s fictional competitors, Ficklegruber. Roald Dahl’s characters mainly have conflict over the chocolate side of things. Is being a chocolatier totally distinct from your chemistry skill set, or should we expect some concoctions from you in that department, too?

There’s actually an incredible amount of chemistry in chocolate making. Cocoa butter, for example, can recrystallize in six forms, but only one (called form V) will give a nice sheen and good snap when cracked. That’s why we temper chocolate: heat to melt completely and break down all forms of the crystalline structure, cool to let new crystals begin to form, then bring the temperature back up to the point that all the unstable crystal forms break down again (while form V stays intact), and finally cool to use this one stable structure to recrystallize all the rest as itself.

Roald Dahl’s classic is titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and when the original film came out the title was changed to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That was because the movie was being funded by the Quaker Oats Company that was planning its release of Wonka Bars to coincide with the film. Chocolate is definitely in the forefront of our minds when we think of Wonka, but the candy wars of the book showed more variety. The plagiarized candies, for example, include non-melting ice cream, gum that never loses its flavor, and candy balloons that can be blown up to incredible sizes. There’s also fizzy lifting drinks and lickable wallpaper.

That’s kind of how I’m approaching everything. The scope is the vast — all things sweet and sugary, and all that can be imagined with them. When it comes to chocolates, that’s definitely in my thoughts, and I’m thinking along the lines of flavors, inclusions, and shapes (but less bean-to-bar, raw, or origin). Don’t be surprised to see a Fickelgruber’s FickelgruBAR down the line in opposition to the Wonka Bar.

In an interview with Brooklyn Magazine, you said you preferred “Candy Warhol” to comparisons with Willy Wonka. This is about innovation in the formal elements of candies for you, isn’t it?

Wonka is the immediate association, and it definitely works because it speaks of his wizardry as a candy maker. I prefer the Candy Warhol moniker, however, because it is totally unexpected — so simple yet funny, and a clever twist on the artist’s name while additionally carrying over with it some of his eccentric, pop sensibilities. They’re characteristic of what I want to be embodied in the candies I make, too: weird but appealing, fun, and funny.

Why did you start with recreating Nerds? What aspects of the original are you seeking to improve upon through F.G. Freaks?

It was somewhat a matter of timing. Back in 2009, I was just getting into panning (the process of candy or chocolate coating anything), and exploring all the possibilities of it. At the same time, I was re-reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and had this idea of attributing a candy to one of Wonka’s rivals. Surprisingly, no one was doing this.

I thought I would start with a real-life Wonka product and came up with this idea to play on Wonka Nerds. I was just having fun, playing on ideas and, I thought it would be hilarious to have a product similar to Nerds and simply describe them as something else (Geeks, Jocks, et cetera). So at the start, that’s what I tried to do — replicate Nerds, exactly. The entire idea of this fit so perfectly with what a rival like a Fickelgruber, Prodnose, or Slugworth would do in stealing recipes.

I wondered about the names of these rivals and eventually settled on Fickelgruber. Prodnose and Slugworth candies could work but don’t sound so appetizing! After some more brainstorms, I came up with the name, Freaks, for the candies. Adjoined to Fickelgruber, I really liked the alliteration, and everything about the term Freaks was just so wild and edgy putting it in contrast to Nerds. So that is how the product was initially dreamt up.

The making of the actual Freaks candy product, on the other hand, was much more practical. Freaks evolved from what were essentially Nerds — copies to what they are today as I was developing the recipes. The first major change that occurred was that I made them giant Nerds by starting with a larger sugar core (essentially a clump of rock candy). It was a freakishly gargantuan Nerd, and I thought, as easy as that, it better live up to its name.

The second alteration was the bumps, and that was encountered accidentally by drying the sugar syrup that I was coating the centers with too quickly. I was making some procedural changes to quicken the overall process and accidentally encountered it. I liked it, however, and decided to run with it.

The bumps, themselves, evolved also from sharp thorny textures in the very beginning to more rounded lumps now. The initial thorny shape was terrific because it was so unusual, but the change was necessary because, in movement (packing, shaking, pouring, shipping), all the thorns would just fall off and settle to the bottom of the container. The rounded lumps I’ve kept today travel much better.

Freaks candies are also a different eating experience altogether. While you typically pour Nerds out and eat them in a handful, Freaks are large enough to pick up individually, suck on, and chomp through. Flavor varieties also extend far beyond the sour fruit types, with savory additions (discussed below).

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Freaks are missing some ingredients found in Nerds: corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors, and carnauba wax. Your flavors are natural and you color with vegetable juice. Why did you forego corn syrup and carnauba wax, and what vegetables do you use for coloring?

I wanted to keep the labels fairly clean and basic from the start. I found that I didn’t need the corn syrup in my formulations to attain the shell coating I desired. Carnauba wax is a polishing agent and gives a nice shine to the candy pieces, but I didn’t feel that it was entirely necessary, either. Plus, by eliminating it, the candies were distinguished with a matte finish that made them appear even more natural and stand out.

Natural, and stepping away from artificial, is just the way of the present and going forward. It’s been that way in Europe, and America is now catching up. We see a lot of companies transitioning out of artificial ingredients (Kraft Mac & Cheese and Trix cereal are just two examples) and I kind of felt that I was afforded this little bonus in that I can start with all natural ingredients instead of going back to reformulate.

The flavors are all natural and the colors are vegetable based. They are all sourced, however, so I’m not creating the extracts for flavors and colorants myself (yet!). They are all proprietary blends from various manufacturers and the colors are derived from natural ingredients like beets, red cabbage, purple sweet potatoes, black carrots, turmeric, and spirulina. Spirulina, a blue-green algae, is a rather recent addition to the portfolio of natural blue colors. While reds and yellows are abundant in nature, blue is much more difficult to come by and without it, it makes shades of green and purple difficult to attain as well. So its approval as a colorant in confections has been quite an exciting development.

Creative Chemistry

People crave them or avoid them at all costs.

When Nestle tried to improve upon Nerds, with Dweebs, it was going for a less sour taste and a bigger size. Freaks perhaps better resemble Dweebs than Nerds, though Dweebs were softer in the middle. Dweebs didn’t last very long in the marketplace. Thoughts on the failure of Dweebs versus the success of Freaks?

I’m not very certain on the fate of Dweebs — whether it was a complete flop or just the intention of the manufacturer to focus on one better-selling brand. At the time, the Wonka mark was not owned by Nestle, but by Breaker Confections/Sunmark Corporation.

There also currently exists another product on the market that fits this category: Leaf Brand’s Farts candy, and its variation Sour Farts. They’re similar to Nerds both in shape and size, but with a softer shell to bite through.

I think fans of Nerds will like Freaks also because they are similar in flavor, tartness and crunch. But the original inspiration for the product came via the Fickelgruber narrative. I haven’t quite approached it in terms of making it a breakthrough success or taking market share away from Nerds/Nestle — those two are secondary in importance in my mind, if at all. What I did want to achieve with the Freaks, however, was a great tasting product, made on premises, constantly evolving, and inspired by Wonka. It’s proven to be a hit at the store, where it has become the best seller and customers have come back for more. I’m content with that.

How do you decide on what flavors to pair up? Sometimes you put two flavors together, sometimes three. Sometimes these pairing mirror Nerds pairings, like grape with strawberry. Other times there’s a departure, such as pairing peach with cherry instead of wildberry. Do you focus on individual flavors and then see what fits together nicely, or to you seek new flavors with their pairings already in mind?

The pairings are based on a number of things. Strawberry/Grape is a classic Nerds combination that I personally enjoy and decided to keep for familiarity. Cherry/Peach was based on the excellent performance of these two flavors at the store. They’re both popular sour variations of chewy candies I have in bulk, and I love how the colors pair.

As for the other one-offs and limited edition flavors, a lot of them are seasonal or based on flavors I’m curious about at the time. For Valentine’s I did a strawberry/fruit punch/acai berry release in pink/white/light purple. I repeated the acai flavor (light purple) and added green apple (light green) and blueberry (light blue) for pastel-like colors over Easter.

I’m currently working on a fresh, summer mix with watermelon and berries. Halloween will likely consist of an orange/white/purple color scheme and Christmas a red/green color scheme. There are Nerds variations for these holidays also, but the term Freaks works especially well because it seems to express a level of enthusiasm or fanaticism for it: Halloween Freaks, Valentine Freaks, Easter Freaks, Merry Freaks… It’s great.

I also recently tried a matcha green tea and coconut version, both completely different eating experiences from the sour fruit varieties. Both of these flavors are quite polar — people crave and look out for them or avoid them at all costs — so they were both packaged as solo flavors. The response has been what I expected. Some people loved them; others, not so much.

For the future, I’m currently thinking about variations with botanical flavors; absinthe, pesto, churro, cucumber, basil, and fruit plus vinegar. Additionally, I’d like to play with combinations of flavors like Double-Dipped Nerds. I’ve made a watermelon (green) covering a strawberry (red) over the same sugar core. But that sugar core can be flavored as well, so putting a grape shell over a strawberry flavored sugar core, as an example is a future experiment. At that point, perhaps it can be elevated to be a “gourmet” Nerds, akin to a Jelly Belly jelly bean with its flavored centers.

Mega Freaks or Super Freaks, I haven’t decided on the name, but a larger version of Freaks candy that starts with a larger sugar core is also in the works. Freaks with multiple layers of flavors and colors, as with a jawbreaker, is a possibility. All the potential variations are truly quite endless.

Grape flavoring almost never tastes anything like actual grapes. Same for banana. Why is that? Why can’t we get more authentic grape and banana flavoring?

I actually have a recent experience with this. I ordered a sample of grape flavoring from a new supplier and what they sent me actually tasted too much like real grapes! They were of concord-type, had a soft, subtle, fruity smell, and a genuine taste of grapes; but it just didn’t work in my batch of Freaks. It might be that we’ve come to expect certain interpretations of candy flavors, even to the extent that flavors are now classified as “candy-type” and “jam-type”, even. I thought the natural-tasting grape flavor I initially received would have worked well for a drink or dessert product, but there’s a certain acuteness, or harshness in concentration, that we come to expect from candies.

With bananas, this last point might be the case as well, but in reverse. Many foods have such a complexity of flavors and when we try to extract and reduce these intricate aromatics down to just a handful, we sometimes miss the intended flavor profile entirely.

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Do you think of what you do as a culinary art, or is it chemistry, where the science happens to produce edible results?

I definitely view it more as chemistry and a science. It closely relates to baking in its precise measurements and pastry work in its techniques. With culinary arts there’s a lot more freedom and improvisation, e.g., one may taste and season on the go. But for the candies I’m trying to produce, I’m trying to offer a consistent product which relies heavily on following recipes and procedures.

For a product like Freaks, there are a lot of variables that can affect the final product: the temperature of the room and relative humidity, the concentration of the prepared sugar syrups, the temperature of the syrups, the speed of the rotating pan, the type and amount of flavors/colors used, the size/grade of the sugar cores, et cetera. Some of these are easily controlled, but others like raw material quality need to be inspected. I have hygrometers placed around the store to monitor humidity, use IR thermometers, and weigh ingredients on scales. Perhaps at the next level, in a larger factory setting, I will have more tools to inspect syrup concentrations, quality control the raw materials, and sort out sugar cores to specific grades.

Your press materials make references to alchemy. Your Bushwick storefront is all black paint. You cite Nikola Tesla and Tim Burton as influences. There’s a heavy Halloween vibe. Is there a little something inherently gothic or mysterious about operating a candy store? Your signature logo is a smiling, blue pumpkin. What’s the significance there?

I wanted to create a bit of a Nikola Tesla-mad scientist and Tim Burton-dark fantasy feel in the store, and generate a bit of this mysterious clout. The jack-o-lantern as emblem for the store is meant to associate readily with Halloween, the greatest candy holiday of them all, and with it, I’m hoping for something iconic to “scream” new candies and sweets.

Despite being a candy store, I didn’t feel it necessary to adorn it with fluffy, pink, bubble gum aesthetics. In a way, it sets it as a sort of fringe candy store and the black exterior emphasizes the mystery and fantasy I wanted to convey. By keeping the exterior muted, I thought it further enhanced the interior of the store where it is already plentiful with colors and lets the candy shine.

The pumpkin being blue with orange highlights is based on the overall color scheme I had in mind for the store: blue and gold. Those colors pay homage to the Brooklyn flag where the store is located, and references New York sports teams like the New York Mets (in my hometown). I wanted the colors to be meaningful in such a way, but it also puts the store in nice contrast to Wonka’s purple and gold.

The blue pumpkin is one of several dozen enamel pins sold in your store. There are also a honey bear, ice cream, lollipops, and many other sweets, plus a heart, paper airplane, glue gun, and a journal that says “keep out” on the cover. Do you design all the pins yourself? Where do you draw inspiration for the ones that aren’t obviously about sugar? How are the pins made?

Aside from the pumpkin pin, all the rest are actually sourced. I choose them pretty much the same way I choose all the other products in the store, by how they resonate with me and relate to the shop.

Of the non-candy type pins, I thought the paper airplane and pinwheel were whimsical, the “keep out” diary a bit mysterious, and the glue gun… well, that was included because so much has been crafted in the store with the real version of that item. The Hamburglar, Grimace, and Mayor McCheese pins, of course, merely reveal my adoration for product characters.

Aside from your own products, you stock other small-batch, independently-made candies. Is this a burgeoning industry? Is artisanal candy the next big thing? What other brands like yours should we try?

Perhaps there will be a craft candy movement as with the craft beer scene, especially as people seek out local varieties and small-batch producers. Quin in Portland, Oregon, makes boutique lollipops and chews using ingredients local to them. Salty Road, here in Brooklyn, makes salt water taffy in small batches using natural ingredients in contemporary flavors like Bergamot and Sea Salt Caramel. Kate Weiser in Dallas, has a product called Carl that I love. He’s a chocolate snowman filled with hot cocoa mix and marshmallows. You melt him in a pot of hot milk to make hot chocolate.

You also stock many older, obscure candies that are becomming hard to find. Is there any item that has proven to be a unicorn, where you’re desperate to have it but it’s impossible to track down?

The older candies are actually fairly easy to stock because many of these manufacturers sell directly through distributors, and a handful of these supply them all. It’s been really difficult, however, to source the Kinder Surprise Egg. They’re illegal in the US because of an olden law that states that you cannot have anything non-functional encased inside something that is eaten. So a lollipop stick is okay, because it serves a purpose (but more so than being a possible choking hazard — which is what everyone thinks), but the toy capsule of a Kinder Egg isn’t allowed.

I haven’t come across a major supplier that imports these or stocks them. Yet, many stores in New York sell them (you can find them in supermarkets and bodegas even). I was fortunate that one nice shopkeeper at a store I frequent gave me a lead. It took months of convincing before I was able to bring in the Kinder Joy variety of eggs. But even that gets delivered in an unmarked white van from a man I only know by his first name — it’s totally the candy black market.

What your personal favorite candy? In your opinion, what’s the most innovative candy in the world today?

I love gummies of all sorts and especially soft, succulent types. In terms of products, my favorite is easily Peanut M&M’s. It just has the best texture/flavor combination and is so satisfying. I love biting into that candy shell, through the chocolate, and getting that additional crunch of the peanut.

Most innovative candy product is the Japanese candy making kit, Kracie Popin’ Cookin’ sushi kit. It has you making tiny “caviar” balls by using an eye dropper to dispense one solution into a pool of another and magically take shape as an edible sphere. It’s molecular gastronomy!

The shop is over a year old and doing well. What’s next for you?

I kind of view the store as this quest for creating new candies and inventive sweets, and it’ll be an ongoing saga. I’m not sure what the future holds, but at the moment I’m definitely thinking foaming pixy stix, fizzy cotton candy, and a la Fickelgruber, that all-elusive never-melting ice cream, too!

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