Hunting for Easter candy

Think outside the basket this year

Like skydiving and politics, Easter candy is one of those things that people don't tend to feel wishy-washy about. There are those with rabid, hit-the-clearance-racks to-stock-up-for-next-year addictions, and those who would rather swallow an actual raw egg than an ounce of Cadbury's achingly sweet, mucous-y goo. In case you can't tell, I'm firmly planted in the latter category. As far as Peeps go, even stale—er, "air-toasted"—as some fanatics swear by them, the little pastel chicks are far more fun to play with than to eat. (Go to www.peepresearch.org to find out what happens when one of the little birdies smokes a cigarette.) To me, chocolate bunnies taste like candle wax, and the only good thing about jelly beans was that, as a kid, I could give all the black licorice ones to my mom, and she would think I was being generous.

Yet Americans buy nearly $2 billion worth of Easter candy each year, just shy of what we spend at Halloween. If the plastic eggs and baskets aren't going anywhere, I thought, at least this year they might be filled with something a little more interesting—candy you wouldn't find at any old Walgreens or Target.

So I headed to Tomasko's Candy Lane in Woodbury, which has an entire section called "Nostalgia Junction" devoted to old-time candy, then to Los Amigos Mexican market in south Minneapolis, and finally to the nearby United Noodles Asian grocery. I spread the stash I'd amassed—Mallo Cups, Cherry Mash, mango-chili lollipops, peanut marzipan, and something with curious illustrations of eggs, vegetables, and Hello Kitty—on the kitchen table and started tasting.

At Golden Fig, Claire Kimmel, 2, demonstrates the proper way to eat a chocolate bunny—ears first
Jana Freiband
At Golden Fig, Claire Kimmel, 2, demonstrates the proper way to eat a chocolate bunny—ears first

Remember how I promised to spend City Pages' money on awful food so you wouldn't have to? From the candy cigarettes to the Pico-Tico (think Pixy Stix that taste like margarita salt), most of the candy went straight to the candy spittoon. The retro candies have dwindled from popularity for a reason. Most were way too sweet, with the exception of the Sen-Sen breath mints, which were actually as bad as a friend had warned: "Things in the wild taste like this to tell animals not to eat it." The only one I'd buy again was the Butter Krak, a dark-chocolate egg filled with buttercream and toasted coconut, which was as addictive as its name implied.

The majority of the Mexican candy I picked up combined fruit flavors with salt and chili. If you grew up developing a taste for this, you'll probably like it; if you didn't, well, you probably won't. I wasn't hot about the mango-shaped gummy candy (coated with chili and salt, of course) on a stick, but I don't particularly like the real thing, either. My favorite was Duvalin, a mix of Nutella-like hazelnut paste and dulce de leche, which is eaten with a little scoop out of an individual plastic tub.

From the United Noodles stash, I liked both the Pocky chocolate-dipped biscuit sticks and what seems to be a kiddie version of that treat, Yan-Yan, in which the cookie sticks are packaged with a cup of strawberry frosting that looks, feels, and tastes exactly like lip gloss. But the best part is that the cookie sticks are printed with curious sayings such as "Squirrel—your best friend" and "Stag beetle—love it." Other faves included ginger chews, fruit-flavored gummies, coffee-flavored hard candies, and "Super Lemon" drops that came in a package with a Lichtenstein-esque woman screaming, "OH! Powerful candy!"

I tossed back a shot-glass-sized plastic cup of lychee-flavored jelly as a warm-up for my last items: Mexican Spice larva and the Salt 'N' Vinegar crickets I'd picked up at Candy Lane. They were an impulse buy at the register—candy insects, hilarious!—which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be all too real, from their compound eyes to their little, hairy jumping legs.

The larva honestly weren't that bad. They were crisp and delicate, kind of like a peanut's paper jacket. If they were chopped to some unidentifiable form, I could actually see using them to garnish a tuna tartare or a salad. Traumatized by the thought of cricket legs getting tangled on my tongue, I decided to eat it piece by piece. I pulled off a Lilliputian leg and ate it like a drumstick. That, and the rest of the body, crunched like a potato chip but hardly tasted like anything.

And there I was: candy spittoon overflowing, teeth mossy, blood sugar crashing. I puffed on a candy cig and lamented the fact that my quest had been in vain, that I'd found very little candy to wholeheartedly recommend. All I could do was brush my teeth, very, very vigorously.

I woke up the next day and realized that I had been on the wrong track: Why travel back in time or halfway around the world when I might find fresh, natural, hand-crafted candy right in my own backyard? I headed over to Golden Fig in St. Paul, a specialty shop that stocks foods from the upper Midwest—cheeses, meats, maple syrup—to find that Kathy Kohout of Sweet Goddess Chocolates had just dropped off her first batch of old-fashioned Easter candy. Golden Fig owner Laurie Crowell was greeting customers between bites of marshmallow egg.

Kohout's chocolate bunnies are what you wish all chocolate bunnies were: an excuse to eat good chocolate without having to share. They're solid Schokinag (a German company known for its drinking chocolate), and after you've gnawed the ears or tail, it seems really uncouth to offer to share something with teeth marks and saliva all over it, so you have no choice but to finish it yourself. Kohout also makes cute, tiny nests—chocolate-and-coconut bowls containing jellybean "eggs" from the co-op, so they don't have artificial this and that or unpronounceable preservatives—and marshmallow half-eggs, wrapped in shiny pastel foils. I peeled back the foil and took a bite. This was what I always wished I'd find inside a Cadbury: a silky, sugary whip, with just the right gumminess without being gooey. The eggs had the perfect ratio of chocolate to fluff. I found the milk chocolate to be a little cloying, but the dark chocolates were divine.

If you're a fan of sticky stuff, Golden Fig also stocks Edna's Caramels, basic brown-sugar-and-butter goodness for caramel purists, and a new line of flavored caramels from Amy Goetz, who makes Bramblewood Cottage scones and shortbread. The Bramblewood salty caramels were my favorite: the same pleasure as salty caramel ice cream, but eminently more portable. But the curried ones had nice depth, with just a hint of heat, and the ones containing actual rose petals, which I worried might veer into eau de grandma's bathroom, were just subtle enough to have a soft, floral sweetness.

Golden Fig also sells a truly tasty Peep alternative: Laura's marshmallows, handmade by a St. Peter mom. The vanilla and chocolate versions are fine—certainly fresher and fluffier than commercial marshmallows—but I found the butterscotch and raspberry flavors to be those that seemed most worthy of Laura Dhuyvetter's hours spent standing over a mixer, whipping up molten sugar. The raspberry ones, studded with seed flecks, are made with actual fruit, which, in case you've gotten used to raspberry Laffy Taffy and Jolly Ranchers, tastes a lot better than artificial raspberry flavor. The butterscotch ones have an intoxicating golden sweetness. If heaven has a smell, it might be Laura's butterscotch marshmallows. I experimented a bit to find they were just as delicious raw, toasted (in my case, via chopstick over gas stove flame), or melting into a cup of hot steamed milk.

I made one last trip across town, to Bellaria Bakery in St. Louis Park, where I discovered a similar spread of holiday candies. Owner Larissa LeMay, who used to run Elegant Confections and is known for her wedding cakes, offers a whole glass case full of cakes and tortes, and, between now and Easter, several hand-dipped chocolate eggs (those filled with a marshmallow-coconut mix are phenomenal) and jellybean-filled nests (white chocolate ones here). I brought home a few chocolate bunnies and holiday-themed sugar cookies and cut myself off there. I'd found enough tasty sweets to keep me hopped up till Easter. 

Golden Fig • 790 Grand Avenue •St. Paul • 651.602.0144; www.goldenfig.com

Bellaria Bakery • 4430 Excelsior Boulevard • St. Louis Park • 952.224.0303; www.bellariabakery.com

Tomasko's Candy Lane • 2070 Eagle Creek Lane • Woodbury • 651.998.1105 • candy-lane.com

Los Amigos • 2746 Blaisdell Avenue • Minneapolis • 612.871.1262

United Noodles • 2015 East 24th St. • Minneapolis • 612.721.6677

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