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Originally published Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Woodinville's Elegant Gourmet brings artistry to candy canes

Like molten red glass, the warm mass of candy glistens and glows as it's prodded, pounded, flipped and kneaded into a squishy pillow of...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Like molten red glass, the warm mass of candy glistens and glows as it's prodded, pounded, flipped and kneaded into a squishy pillow of sweetness.

In a few minutes, to the delight of an audience of schoolchildren, it will combine with white and pink panels of warm candy to become an 80-pound peppermint-scented log, destined to be swirled and stretched into stripey candy canes.

By December, roughly 1 million candy canes will leave the Woodinville factory of Elegant Gourmet, a purveyor of specialty foods and sweets. On any workday, thousands of candy canes will get their stripes in a large room that smells of peppermint, sugar and hot gingerbread.

Remember July? The weather was so hot that fans buzzed in windows around the city. Kids and grown-ups plunged into cool Lake Washington so they could sleep at night.

Candy Cane Lane


The origin of candy canes remains mysterious. But legend has it that in 1670, the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany gave his young singers sugar sticks bent in the shape of shepherd's crooks to keep them quiet during a long holiday service.

Eat up: Americans are expected to buy 1.8 billion candy canes this year.

Mark it on the calendar: National Candy Cane Day is Dec. 26.

How the candy got its stripes: Candy canes typically were white and tasted similar to plain sugar lollipops until the turn of the

20th century, when candy makers began adding peppermint flavor and distinctive red-and-white stripes to associate the candy more firmly with the Christmas holiday.

Taste the rainbow: Peppermint remains the most popular flavor, though candy canes now range from strawberry to watermelon.

Hope Santa had room on his sleigh: Paul Ghinelli, a Michigan candy maker, crafted a 58-foot-long candy cane in 1999, still the longest candy cane to date.

Source: National Confectioners Association

December may have been the farthest thing from our minds. But in Woodinville, Christmas already was on the front burner. Literally.

Christmas in July is no figure of speech at Elegant Gourmet. As one of only a handful of hand-pulled candy makers in the country amid a growing demand for hand-crafted sweets, candy-cane making must commence six months early so that orders can be filled, said owner Louisa Davis.

And the pace has not let up. On a recent weekday, workers bustled around the factory, arm muscles flexing as they scooped sticky chocolate filling from copper kettles and poked hot candy with steel rods to help cool it evenly and not burn.

Machines stretch, bend and wrap the canes in most candy factories these days. At Elegant Gourmet, however, the only machines used in the process is a taffy puller (to save backs from the strain of pulling 10-plus batches a day) and a roller, a long sling where the heavy log of candy spins into its swirls of red and white. Workers must train for 10 months to earn the title master candy maker, which gets them an integral position on the candy-cane line.

Candy canes begin as corn syrup and sugar, bubbling in a vat at more than 300 degrees. Workers pour the steaming, golden mixture onto a shallow table, to expand the surface area and help it cool faster and evenly. They divide the hot candy into three sections, pour cups of food coloring that resemble paint into each and work it in carefully with spatulas. One quarter is deep red, the color of blackberry jam. Another quarter, bright white. The remaining half is sprinkled with peppermint oil and crushed candy cane and turns pink. Later, it will become the candy cane's core, where the flavor is.

Once the sections become taffylike, it's time to lift the red and white sections from the table and hang the masses from metal hooks, where workers pull and stretch it by hand to mix the color and flavor evenly. The heavier pink section is hefted onto the puller, where the flavor is worked in.

Then, it's time to heave the still-pliant candy to another table, where the red-and-white portions are massaged into long slabs of alternating color. The pink portion is worked into a flat circle, like pizza dough.

On this day, the candy canes will be filled. Workers use a wooden spoon to plop chocolate into the center of the pink circle, then fold it around the chocolate like a calzone, crimping the top to seal it.

Watch candy canes get their stripes


Elegant Gourmet: The Woodinville factory of Elegant Gourmet offers tours Fridays and by advance reservation only. Tours are first-come, first-served and often are full during the holidays. Call 425-814-2500 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to schedule a tour.

They set the filling portion into the red-and-white slabs and roll it all up into what amounts to a gigantic candy burrito. They set it into the roller, where the log slowly spins in a canvas sling. Workers pull ropes of candy from the log and snip them free with giant scissors. Then, the lengths of candy are wrapped by hand around a small piece of pipe to get their trademark hook, weighed, then tucked into plastic, labeled and sealed.

Like snowflakes, no two hand-pulled candy canes are precisely alike, which Davis says only adds to their nostalgic appeal.

"Every one has its own personality," Davis said, as she gazed at a forest of candy-cane trees and endless canes. "I'm proud that we are doing this. We consider ourselves food artists."

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

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