Local Flavors: Sweets of Chicago - #111

Every town in the world has a local flavor; a flavor that comes from its signature dishes, from a group of preferred ingredients, or a type of restaurant that is popular.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment or a technique.  There are dozens of things that impact on the local flavor.  But the most important influences are always the result of geography, history and economics.  We are born loving the sweet taste of sugar.  It is a craving that comes down to us through evolution, and is reinforced by the sweetness of mother's milk.  Sugar is an extremely concentrated source of energy, and energy is essential for survival.  Very early in human history, we learn that foods that were sweet were life sustaining.  These days the sweetest things we eat are candies.  And the most important city for candy making in America is Chicago.  It's the place to get a telescopic view of the Milky Way and Mars, or find out who Tootsie really was and what made her roll.  So please join me, Burt Wolf, for taste of the local flavors of Sweet Chicago.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The first candy bars made in America were made in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  But by the early years of the 20th century, America's great sweet tooth had moved to Chicago.  The reason was very simple; it was an easy place to get corn syrup, dairy products, real estate was relatively inexpensive, and there was a great pool of intelligent and devoted labor.  But the event that really changed America's sweet tooth into a full bridge and an upper plate was the first world war.

The U.S. Army ordered American candy manufacturers to produce bars that weighed 20 to 40 pounds.  They were shipped to Europe and then cut into smaller pieces at the front.  Eventually the job of making the candy in smaller pieces was assigned back to the manufacturers.  By the end of the war, candy bars were a regular part of the American diet.  And over 40,000 different candy bars were being produced.  These days, the candy business in the United States is estimated at over $20 billion.  And that's nothing to snicker at, especially in Chicago where the M&M Mars Candy Company makes Snickers.  Snickers is America's number one selling candy bar and it produces almost $1 billion of annual sales, which really satisfies.  It's made from a nugget base, topped with a mixture of caramel and peanut, which is then enrobed with milk chocolate.

BURT WOLFON CAMERA: The Snickers bar was developed by Frank Mars.  And the original version was not chocolate coated.  Frank believed that by combining the food textures found in nature, his candy bar would satisfy hunger.  Nice try.  But his customers soon told him that chocolate coated hunger satisfaction was much better.

In terms of hunger, Frank's claim to fame was not limited to the Snicker's bar.  During the 1920s malted milk drinks were very popular.  So he developed a candy that felt like a portable milk shake, and he called it a Milky Way.  It's made from chocolate, caramel and nugget.  Similar in ingredients to a Snickers but without the nuts.  He also believed that there was an ideal shape and size for each bar and based his designs on the ratios used by the ancient Greek and Egyptian architects.  And like those venerable mathematicians, Frank Mars looked to the heavens for guidance, with a particular interest in Mars, the Milky Way and Star Bursts.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Chicago is also the home of the Tootsie Roll which was the first penny candy to be wrapped in paper.  In 1896 Leo Herschfeld immigrated to the United States from Austria, opened a little shop and began to make candy from a secret formula.  He named that candy after his daughter Clara, whose nickname was Roll.  Tootsie. 

These days, the president of the company is Ellen Gordon.  She showed me how Tootsie Rolls are made.  They start out from a base which is primarily sugar, corn syrup, soy bean oil, skim milk, and cocoa.  That mixture is heated, cooled, thinned out, rolled, cut and wrapped.  Over 60 million Tootsie Rolls are made each day.  Tootsie Rolls also come in the form of a Tootsie Pop, which was the first soft-centered lollipop.  The hard candy outside starts as a hot strip of sugar and water.  As it cools, it's formed around a cone.  Tootsie Roll mix is fed into the center of the cone.  A unique machine turns some of the sugar candy around to form a ball over the Tootsie, and then pops in a stick.  And over the years, it's become apparent that most Tootsie Pop lovers want to get through the hard candy outside and into the Tootsie as fast as possible.  And so the company began to reduce the thickness of the coating.  And how many licks it takes to get through to the center appears to be a question of universal concern, which the company has answered in a half dozen languages.  Polish is my favorite.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: This company represents the sweet dreams of my youth.  Not only do they make Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops, but they make Dots and Crows and Sugar Daddys and Sugar Babies and Charleston Chew and Junior Mints.  This is what I used to eat when I went to the movies.  As a matter-of-fact, I went to the movies to eat candy.  I thought the movies were something that the candy guys threw in to keep me quiet while I was eating.

Candies can be divided into three categories; chocolate, hard, and soft.  In general, hard candy and soft candies have similar ingredients; water, sugar, and flavoring.  And if the candy turns out to be soft or hard is a function of how much heat is applied to the mixture.  The higher the heat, the harder the candy.  Chicago is home to the largest maker of non-chocolate candies in the United States.  The company is called Brachs, and it was started in 1904 by Emil O. Brach.  They make 300 different candies including Peppermint Starlight Mints, and they are masters at the mixing of jelly beans.  I learned that almost all jelly beans start out with the same based mixture in the center.  The specific flavor comes only from the coating.  When it comes to most jelly beans, flavor is only skin deep.

For a taste of old fashioned handmade chocolate and ice cream, stop into Margie's Candies.  It opened in 1921 and very little has changed.  It's a Chicago classic.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  Let me show you what's going on here. Ice cream, whipped cream, caramel sauce, sugar wafers.  Now those represent the four major food groups of my childhood.  Tastes great together.

Like many cities in the United States, Chicago's love of sweets includes a group of specialty bakers.  And one of the most famous is Eli's who's been baking cheesecake since 1977.  Chicago is the largest cheesecake market in the country.  And Eli's is the largest specialty cheesecake bakery, turning out 16,000 cakes each day.  Mark Schulman, an attorney who gave up suing for sifting, is the president of the company.  The plant's daily tours are a top attraction.  Each day the company goes through 15,000 pounds of cream cheese, 4,000 pounds of sugar, 265,000 fresh eggs, 5,000 pounds of sour cream, and 200 pounds of Madagascar vanilla.  All cheesecakes are based on the simple process of sweetening fresh cheese curds and baking the mixture.  And that's what Eli does with over 75 different recipes, including ones based on Heath Bars, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, and Key Limes.  But the best seller is still the original plain.  They have a dessert cafe in which they offer a series of creations based on cheesecake.  A Dipper is a slice of cheesecake that's frozen onto a stick, dipped in chocolate, and coated with the topping of your choice.  A Smush is cheesecake and ice cream smushed together.  And finally, shakes made from cheesecake and ice cream.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  Cheesecake is one of our earliest baked goods.  Historians tells us that the ancient Greeks took goat cheese and sheep cheese, sweetened it with honey and made a cheesecake that was fed to the athletes at the first Olympics which took place in 776 BC. 

Much of the food in Chicago is based on the cooking found in the ethnic neighborhoods.  A perfect example is The Swedish bakery in Andersonville.  It opened in 1928 and continues to bake the breads, cakes and pastries that were dear to its founder.  A neighborhood favorite is the Andersonville Coffee Cake.  It's a light cardamom yeast cake with a topping of almonds.  Alfonso Aguilar is going to teach us the recipe.  He starts by measuring the ingredients for the cardamom dough and placing them into a mixer.  Sugar, salt, cardamom, butter, margarine, powdered milk, flour.  Now that the dry ingredients have been weighed in, it's time to add the eggs, cold water and yeast.  That's the base for the dough, and it's mixed together for about 20 minutes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Most bakers measure by weight.  It's much more precise than measuring by volume.  Alfonso was using a balance scale, but you could also use an electronic scale. If you're picking out an electronic scale, here's what to look for.

The large surface area to hold the bowl you are weighing the ingredients in, an easy-to-read display, the ability to convert from metric to American, a generous capacity, and a tare function that allows you to reset the scale to zero while ingredients are in the bowl on the tray.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  It should be easy to story and easy to clean.  My favorite is The Salter's Baker's Dream.  It has an interesting feature.  If it displays zero for one minute, it turns off automatically.  Or if the weight hasn't changed for five minutes, it turns off automatically.  Saves your battery.  It's a good design.

At home you would use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to about a quarter inch thickness.  But here at the bakery he uses an amazing piece of equipment called a sheeter.  You throw the dough in at one end, and it comes out completely rolled at the other.  A mixture of almond paste, sugar, butter and margarine is spread out on the dough.  Then the dough is rolled into a log shape.


He's way ahead of his previous record.  And that's it, and it's closed.  Hands up!

A 12-inch cake pan is brushed with melted butter, and then the dough goes in and is formed into a ring.  Alfonso leaves about one inch between the dough and the cake pan so the cake can expand.  The dough is then cut to create a braided look.  Alfonso uses a kitchen shears to cut the braid into the dough.  Basically a kitchen shears is simply two knives that are joined in the middle.  And every kitchen should have a good pair.  The best ones are produced by the best knife companies.  They should be made of high carbon stainless steel with a good edge that can be sharpened just like a knife.  One blade should have a straight edge, and the other should be finely serrated.  Every part of it should be dishwasher safe. 

At this point, the cake is brushed with an egg wash and left to proof for 20 minutes.  The dough is topped with a mixture of chopped almonds and sugar, then it's into a 350-degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes.  Then it's out of the oven and into your mouth.

I'll tell you how to get the recipes for the dishes in this program and all the other programs in this series at the end of the show.

The great bakers that came to Chicago with the large German immigration of the 1800s and early 1900s are represented by Dinkel’s which opened in 1922.  It was opened by Joseph Dinkel of Dinkelsvule in Southern Bavaria.  They're famous for their sweet German Christmas bread which is called a Stolen.  And if you are interested in tasting a perfect doughnut, the way they tasted before they were mass produced by national chains, this is the place.

Another fine German bakery,  Schmeissing’s.  It was opened in 1934 by Gene Schmeissing who came here from Castle, German.  Good breads, fine fruit tarts, and a turtle cookie made with a sweet cookie dough base covered with nuts, topped with caramel and crowned with chocolate.  The baker calls them a turtle.  But I think they should be called a tortoise, because one bite taught us to love them.

In addition to being a center for candy manufacturers and bakers, Chicago's sweet dreams include the create visions of some of the country's most talented dessert chefs.  Gale Gand practices her art in a restaurant called Tru.  The recipe she's going to teach me today is a maple glazed angel food cake.

GALE GAND: We started with egg whites, okay.  We're going to mix those in the mixer with a whip attachment.  We're trying to get air into these.  To help them get a little bit of air, I add cream of tartar and salt.  And then just set it mixing.  I want to get as much air as possible in there.  I gradually add the sugar in.  You want to continue mixing until the sugar dissolves.  It takes about 30 seconds.  And it's very glossy, very, very stiff.  We're going to sift together cake flour and a little bit of sugar that I've held off.  And usually what I do is sift it three times.  All right, just ... make sure you've gotten as much going as possible, turn the mixer up.  See how nice and fluffy and you're seeing the trails of the whip attachment.  That's perfect.  That's what you're looking for.  So now, we have to fold.  One of my very favorite things to do.  And I need your help.  I'm going to need you to add this flour gradually.  You're going to kind of drizzle it in.  You know how to do that.  This was a cake that ... I make this for my dad he's a marathon runner, so he's into no-fat and that's one of the nice things about this cake; it's no fat.  Last thing we're going to add is the maple.  This is actually the maple syrup and some vanilla.  You're going to put half in and fold.  And this cake has maple in it, and then it's going to get maple on it.

When you're baking a heavy batter like a pound cake or you're making a cake that needs to be heated all the way through quickly, like an angel food cake, the best pan for the job, and maybe the only pan that would do the job properly is one with a tube in the center.  And the reasoning is very simple.  With those kinds of cakes in a non-tube pan, the outside would burn before the inside was cooked.  Tube brings the heat to the center so everything cooks evenly.

GALE GAND: So this is going to go in the oven.  Bake it 'til it's firm; about 30 minutes.  And let me show you one I did earlier.  It's still hot.  Now this is the fun stuff.  Take it out of the oven, because of gravity, the cake wants to deflate that way.  What we do instead, what I do is, I put it on a bottle to cool.  So you put it upside down, right?  On a bottle, like that, and let it cool that way.  So that it doesn't deflate in the pan.  So once it's cool, what I do is take either a butter knife or the backside of a knife and cut around the cake.  You don't want sharp because you want to leave as many crumbs in the pan as possible.  So just kind of go around the outside with the backside of a knife.  There I go.  Okay.  Now, we're going to turn it out onto a serving platter.  We're going to hope it comes out.

BURT WOLF: It's going to come out.

GALE GAND: Do you have the turning things out of the pan prayer ready to go?


WOMAN: Okay.  Ready?  This is actually a nice pan because it’s got a removable ... there you go.  Ready? 

BURT WOLF: Boy, does that smell good.

GALE GAND: Take this off.  Now we have to make the glaze.  It’s just some maple syrup.  Now just whisk in confectioners’ sugar. We’re just going to spoon this glaze over the cake and then you want to let it set up about 30 minutes.  I sort of stayed near the edge so some is on top, but some starts to go down the sides to make sure you get that real oozy, drippy, yeah.

BURT WOLF: I like that.

GALE GAND: I don't know anybody that doesn't like that.  I like drippy.


While I was analyzing Chicago's sweet dreams, I stayed at The House of Blues Hotel which is a Loews Hotel.  Interior decoration is a mixture of gothic, Moroccan, East Indian, Uptown, Downtown, Across town and high-tech.  In the same way that The Blues Brothers film took a relaxed approach to Chicago, House of Blues Hotel takes a relaxed approached to the somewhat staid manner you find in most hotels.  When you check in, you get a CD of Blues Rocker, R&B.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The elevators run at a perfectly normal speed.  But just to make sure you don't get bored while you're waiting, they have placed a television set into the wall next to the doors.  Unfortunately, the other day somebody changed the station from CNN to an old Marilyn Monroe movie.  And I was two hours late for my appointment.  But I was in a good mood and mood is very much what this hotel is all about.

Instead of having a sign that reads "Please Do Not Disturb," the sign at the House of Blues reads "Don't Bother Me," which is, of course, what many of us are really thinking when we hang out that sign. 

Or if you want to be bothered, or bother someone else, each room has a sophisticated communications system.  Two telephone lines, a fax machine with a data port, and high-speed Internet access.  And if you want to be entertained, there's a television with a cassette player and a music system with a CD player.  The hotel has a special interest in accommodating business travelers.  The 14th floor has an executive lounge that provides a continental breakfast.  Rooms on that floor also offer a high-speed T-1 for your computer. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And if you're in the mood to lounge around, you can lounge in the Kaz Bar, which is the hotel's Moroccan-style lobby lounge.

The hotel has a special deal with the Crunch Gym which is on the bottom floor of the building. 

COACH: Way to go!  Way to go!

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I was particularly interested in the attention they pay to grandparents.  You show up with a grandchild, you get a kit which includes, among other things, a disposable camera, an album to put the photographs in, a telephone card to call home for help, and a tip sheet on how to be a good grandparent.  The only thing I'd add to the tip sheet is um, based on my own experience, it's quite helpful to read your grandchildren the portion of your will in which they receive a great deal of money.  I'd also include ear plugs.  I always take my ear plugs when I go to visit my grandson Max.

There's also a state-of-the-art AMF bowling center in the hotel's building.


Directly across the courtyard from the hotel's entrance, is the House of Blues Restaurant and Music Hall.  Every Sunday they hold a gospel brunch.  The buffet is basically Southern food and it's an all-you-can-eat service.  About 25 different dishes including jambalaya, sweet potato hash, barbecued chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and bread pudding with a bourbon sauce.  The interior space is based on an old opera house of Prague with three tiers of Baroque balconies.  But the decorations are based on African American folk art.

Each week a different gospel choir comes to The House of Blues and gives everyone an opportunity to praise the Lord and pass the biscuits.  Today's group is Andre Patterson and the Shop Choir.  Andre used to be a hairdresser and he needed money to buy more chairs for his shop.  He brought together some of his clients and fellow hairdressers and formed a gospel group to raise the money.

Well, that's a look at the sweet soul of Chicago.  I hope you've enjoyed seeing it and that you will join me next time on Local Flavors.  I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.