Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christmas chocolate cravings

Canelake's delightfully old-fashioned Iron Range candy shop.
Upper Midwest's best candy shops

It's a pregnant woman's fantasy: chocolate-covered dill pickles and even chocolate-covered green olives. How can you not give in to curiosity and give them a try?

My mom and I found these savory, strange sweets at Carole Widman's Candy Company in Fargo, North Dakota, last winter. It takes a bit for your tastebuds and brain to process an utterly unpredictable taste combination--mostly with the olives. It requires you to chew slowly, let it linger, say "Hmmm..." and then try it again. It's a strangely addicting combination of sweet and salty, and I'd have to say I preferred the olives. The dill of the pickles seemed too overwhelming.

Since we're probably all recovering from the sugar and calorie comas of Halloween's predictable treats--Reese's, M&Ms and Kit Kats--it's a good time to seek and celebrate what's different and what creative candy makers at small chocolatiers are serving.

Think of it as a sensory gift, too, a sweet hit of aromatherapy. Remember that magical French mint whiff you'd get walking past Fanny Farmer stores?

If you're not drooling yet, give it a minute. Here are a few tasty picks from Minnesota and the Dakotas. Most offer mail order for Christmas if you can't get there in person.
Watertown Confectionery, Watertown, SD

This store nestled into a wonderful old-fashioned  downtown serves my favorite chocolate-covered potato chips. The kettle-style Dakota chips are thick and crunched up for maximum density and texture. Even better: try the clusters jalapeno-flavored potato chips drenched in chocolate. It's a surprisingly brilliant combination: a kick tempered with sweetness and a dash of salt.

Owners Mike and Vickie Marotz also are known for their South Dakota cow pies and chocolate mints you can smell throughout this tidy, spacious shop--unless it's coffee roasting day. Breathe deeply and enjoy.

Carole Widman's, Fargo, ND
If the novelty of chocolate-covered pickles and olives seems too out-there (or you can't eat them right away before they expire), go for a fresh take on traditional hand-dipped chocolates. We loved the sunflower-seed-studded bars of chocolate (a perfect nod to local crops) and the crisp-crunch of chocolate with flax seed. That, too, gives a nod to local farming and bites like a more delicate Nestle Crunch Bar with a nutty, fun kick of roasted flax.

Their most famous chocolates? Chippers, chocolate-covered potato chips, heavy on the chocolate.

The pink-themed store seems like a candy newcomer buried in a strip-mall by big-box stores, but Widman's business has been around for about 100 years. Other family members run stores in Grand Forks and Morris, Minn.

Canelake's, Virginia, MN

If you love that stick-in-your-teeth butterscotchy goodness of Butterfingers, you'll love Canelake's "Hot Air," an old-fashioned foam candy dipped in chocolate. Of course it's much airier and more puffed up than a Butterfinger with its unusual texture. 

This downtown Virginia institution with its vintage red-and-white-striped storefront screams nostalgia in the best way possible. The Canelake's candymakers have been stirring buttery caramel, adding real cream, roasting nuts, and cooling hand-dipped chocolates on marble tables since 1905.

You can buy assortments by the box or put together your own mix with minty Swiss chocolates, chocolate-caramel-pecan frogs, glazed and chocolate-dipped apricots and just about any nutty, fruity or creamy candy-store combination.

Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen, Knife River, MN
 You'd never know this adorable red-and-white shop used to be Mel's Fish store. This long-time Knife River icon seems like such a natural fit for a sweet little candy shop. Pamela and Patricia Canelake and Pamela's husband, Dennis--grandchildren of the Canelake's founder--bought the building and replanted the family's chocolate roots in 2007.

Like Canelake's, one of Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen's best-known sweets is the chocolate-covered sponge candy dubbed "Air Crunch." Among their other standouts are spicy ginger caramels with a hint of cinnamon, a maple cream bar covered in chocolate-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered sea salt caramels, and the wittily named U Betcha Bars--a generous caramel square dipped in chocolate and rolled in walnuts. It's on a stick, which is a fun nod to Minnesota's legendary on-a-stick state fair food.

Indecisive? A Knife River Nibbler box can take care of that. And if you're missing Mel's Fish, you'll have to go to Russ Kendall's for your smoked fillets, but grab the candy shop's tribute to Mel first: a chocolate fish.

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