During the month of December one smell can fill the town and let you know exactly what's going on at Casey's Bakery — the making of Anise candy.
Either you love it or hate I say. I won't say what category I'm in, but please don't buy me any for Christmas. OK, so it may not be my favorite, but this is another Christmas treat behind which I enjoy the story.
Sit back and enjoy this oldie but goodie from the Dec. 4, 2013, issue of the Sioux Center News.
Just looking at the name of the red, square-shaped candy that has returned to Casey’s Bakery shelves this holiday season may raise a questioning eyebrow.
What’s the appeal to eating a candy with not-so-pleasant nicknames?
“You either love it or you hate it; there never seems to be anyone in between when it comes to anise candy,” said Ryan De Groot, official anise candy maker at the famed Sioux Center bakery.
De Groot credits the black licorice-like odor that fills the mall during the candy’s production and fills the tongue upon the first taste of the candy as the reason behind the “love it” or “hate it” divide.
“To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the taste,” De Groot said. “I eat it though, mainly for the nostalgia. So many memories are tied to scents and this reminds me of my grandpa.”
That grandpa happens to be bakery founder Casey De Groot, who began making anise candy when he started the bakery in 1946.
“The black licorice taste is traditionally a Dutch favorite, which I think is why my grandpa made it at the bakery,” De Groot said.
Most of De Groot’s visits to the bakery revolved around helping is grandfather.
“I would come in on Saturdays, sit by Grandpa and watch him make the candy,” he said. “That’s the best memory I have of my grandpa of making anything at the bakery.”
While father Ron De Groot has made batches of the holiday treat, Ryan De Groot remains the main candy maker.
“I learned how to make the candy back when I was knee high to a grasshopper, and my dad does so many other things at the bakery so I take on this task during the holiday season,” he said.
The formula has not changed from his grandfather’s original recipe.
“Glucose, sugar, water, anise oil — there are no secret ingredients,” De Groot said. “And there is no exact measure. We just eyeball it so that makes each batch vary slightly, depending on who’s making it.”
The creation process has not changed either.
“We’ve always used a copper kettle over the candy stove and we use same marble table and bars my grandpa used to lay out the candy,” De Groot said.
First, the sugar, water and glucose solution is heated to 320 degrees.
“It’s all about how much water you remove from this solution that gives the candy its hardness,” De Groot said. “Soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack and hard crack are the five stages of cooking sugar. Soft ball is like fudge, firm ball is like caramel, hard ball is like nugget, soft crack is like peanut brittle and hard crack is what we need for anise candy.”
Anise oil is added once the sugar solution reaches the proper temperature, creating a steam that sends the smell through the bakery and the mall — and, of course, gives the candy its flavor.
“It has always been kind of a mystery as to why red dye is used to color the candy,” De Groot said. “Grandpa did it that way, so we keep doing it that way. I guess it adds to the holiday feel of the candy too.”
Pouring the scalding mixture onto the marble slab can be a dangerous process if not careful.
“I’ve had some of the candy drip onto my skin and you can’t rub it off otherwise it would take flesh with it and then you have to scratch the whole batch,” De Groot said, wearing a short-sleeve T-shirt. “It gets so hot in here while making the candy, I don’t want to wear long sleeves. I haven’t burned myself in a long time, but it has happened and you just work through the pain.”
Using a marble table helps pull the heat away from the candy solution to help it cool for cutting. Once cut using the same roller his grandfather used, De Groot said up to half a batch can be lost during the breaking process if not done correctly — or at the right time.
“The candy needs to be a little pliable yet so it can be broken just right with no sharp edges,” he said.
The whole process can take a little more than an hour.
De Groot does not keep track of how many batches he makes annually; he just knows the demand for the candy increases exponentially in November.
“Every once in a while during the year we get an order for it so we make it, but mostly it is a Thanksgiving/Christmas treat,” he said. “Selling really takes off in December. Typically, we have to make two to three batches a day after Thanksgiving.”
De Groot said online ordering seems to have increased demand for the candy, noting many customers who grew up on the candy while living in the area and then moved away often want some during the holiday season.
“That’s partly why we keep making it because there’s a demand for it,” De Groot said. “It’s partly because of the tradition. Not straying away from tradition — that’s important to us at the bakery. And it helps keep the memories of my grandpa alive not just for me but for the community too.”