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.
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).
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.