Willy Wonka once wondered, "Where is fancy bred? In the heart or in the head?"
Or, he might well have asked, in the mouth? Here in Memphis, we know the answer to that question. Lately, the Bluff City has started winning awards and considerable acclaim for its craft candy scene — which, five years ago, was limited to a single boutique chocolatier.
"I love caramel, and I love making people happy," Shotwell Candy Co. founder Jerrod Smith confesses.
Shotwell, which opened its online store in November 2012, recently won a Southern Living 2015 Food Award for "Best Sweets."
In the beginning, Smith worked out of his home kitchen, cooking candies late at night. Today, Shotwell operates out of a commercial kitchen, hand-making about 300 boxes of caramels each day. They have lately branched out into trail mix and toffee.
What sets Shotwell apart are the high quality of its ingredients and the scientific exactitude of its process. When devising a recipe for his caramels, he experimented with a dozen different varieties of butter — French, Amish, American, organic — which varied based on fat and salt content.
Which did he end up choosing? Well, that's a trade secret, of course.
"When you put heat and sugar together, you get these amazing flavors," Smith observes. "Combine that with my innate nerdiness and my desire to figure things out, and you get a business pretty quick."
How does it taste? In a word: excellent. The Hand-Crushed Espresso Caramels ($9.75) are my favorite — the perfect marriage of salty and crunchy, gooey and sweet. And the Tennessee Toffees are not far behind. You can find Shotwell candies in about 90 stores across the Southeast, including (locally) Porcellino's, Whole Foods, and City & State.
They say that invention is 93 percent perspiration, 6 percent electricity, 4 percent evaporation, and 2 percent butterscotch ripple. It's a proprietary formula, one with which chef Phillip Ashley Rix is intimately familiar.
"I want to create things that no one has begun to imagine," Rix, owner of Phillip Ashley Chocolates, says. "I'm like Willy Wonka. I want to put the whole world in a stick of bubble gum."
Like Jerrod Smith, Rix is an autodidact. He never took a class on how to make ganache; he taught himself. Yet somehow, he has started turning out some of the tastiest — and most visually shocking — chocolates in the country.
Shocking enough to win acclaim from publications like Forbes and USA Today, not to mention celebrities like Tom Brokaw and Morgan Freeman. Have you ever tasted a truffle flavored with fig jam, goat cheese, and port wine?
"What Kate Spade did for handbags," Rix says, "what Louboutin did for women's shoes ... that's what I wanna do for chocolate."
Rix's latest venture is vegan chocolate, and it started with a celebrity encounter. Last month, Rix was catering an event at Pearl River Resort in Mississippi, and he was asked to bring a gift bag for country music legend Tim McGraw, who would be performing.
There was just one catch. McGraw is vegan. So Rix began experimenting, and before long he had cooked up a dairy-free truffle flavored with spicy Mexican sipping chocolate.
These confections must be seen to be believed. High-gloss hemispheres that have been painted with dancing flames, each is a little work of art. And they taste as good as they look, with a smooth, chocolaty crème and a satisfying, spicy finish. Rix says they are the first in a vegan series that will include bourbon and lavender vanilla.
Of course, you can't write about craft candy in Memphis without covering Dinstuhl's Fine Candies. Family-owned since 1902, they were making cashew brittle when Smith and Rix were twinkles in their fathers' eyes. More recently, they've been acclaimed by People magazine and Cooking with Paula Deen, who judged Dinstuhl's fudge "The Best in America."
Not too shabby. President Rebecca Dinstuhl says her company's consistent, high quality comes from having had five generations of Dinstuhl's in the kitchen.
"It makes us cautious with our recipes," she confides. "We've got people who have been customers for 70 years, so we want to make sure it tastes as good as it did when our great-grandfather made it."
You can taste the difference in confections like the Peanut Butter Square. Impossibly rich and creamy, it's as though Alice Waters cooked up a Reese's buttercup.
For summer, Dinstuhl's is rolling out a line of chocolate-dipped fruits, including raspberries, blackberries, pineapples, and grapes. They're actually pretty marvelous. Before being enrobed in chocolate, they are rolled in a sugar fondant, which means that instead of a gooey filling, there's actually a little raspberry in there.
And so a good deed shines in a weary world.