Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Piece of Candy, Piece of History: Clear toy candy is an old-fashioned, PA Dutch treat.

Chances are that you don’t remember finding clear toy candy in your Christmas stocking, but your grandparents might have.

Sweetly nostalgic, clear toy candy doubles as both hard candy and toy trinket or action figure. When your choo-choo train or rocking horse got too dirty from racing it along the floor with your friends, you just washed it off and licked it, then raced it along the floor some more.

Hand-crafted in small batches in the old Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen tradition, clear toy candy’s history can be traced as far back as 1750 in Philadelphia. The candy then traveled west along with much of the PA Dutch population. Because it retailed at about 18 cents apiece in the era of penny candy, it was considered an elitist confection.

Today, the process of making clear toy candy is a dying art. Because it isn’t mass-produced or made in microwaves, you can buy it in only the most specialized candy boutiques.

Or you may be lucky enough to find it in a history buff’s kitchen.

Harrisburg resident George Kopp (and disclaimer, the author’s husband) has been making clear toy candy as a hobby for almost two decades. He regularly demonstrates his technique at different Christmas-themed fairs and festivals.

“I get invited somewhere most years around Christmas—Fort Hunter, the American Legion, my dad’s nursing home,” Kopp said, adding that the Linglestown Christkindlmarkt will be a new venue this year for his candy demos.

 

Total Control

To make clear toy candy, artisans like Kopp pour liquid sugar into intricate metal molds featuring miniature Christmas decorations, animals and other three-dimensional shapes. Traditional candy colors are red, green and yellow only. The food coloring adds no flavor, so all colors taste the same.

“We have found candy variations of other colors, some with flavoring, and some even have a lollipop stick,” Kopp said. “This is not the true traditional clear toy candy.”

To cast the sugar into shapes, candy makers use sturdy metal molds with intricate details. Not only is clear toy candy a dying art, so is manufacturing the molds.

In the 1860s, the prolific Thomas Mills and his brother, George, made molds and other candy-making equipment. Their patented, three-dimensional molds were hinged, signed and numbered. The company went out of business in 1946.

A handful of other mold manufacturers popped up over the years and melted back down in the Philadelphia area between 1853 and 1990. Nancy Fasolt, owner of Cake and Kandy Emporium in Lancaster, made reproductions of many of these molds until her death in 2015. Kopp picked up this hobby in the early 2000s, when he saw Fasolt give a clear toy candy demo at Hershey Museum’s Christkindlmarkt.

“We walked home with a kit and a recipe that day,” he said. “And since she mentioned she had metal molds for sale, I took her business card, too.”

Because the replica molds don’t have hinges, Kopp uses strong clamps to hold them together. The molds can be anything three-dimensional—animals, sailboats, baskets, even an old-fashioned Father Christmas. The molds tend to have Easter or Christmas themes due to the favorable weather conditions.

“You need zero humidity in the air to make the candy,” Kopp said. “If it’s too sticky outside, you’ll get cloudy candy pieces.”

Early molds were made from brass and cast iron. Later came aluminum molds. They are popular with today’s few candy artisans because they are lighter, rust-resistant and food-safe. If you do find older molds, many of them are better suited for a museum or for hanging on a kitchen wall due to corrosion, tarnish, warping or breakage. Some older molds contain lead or pewter. Many of the older metal molds were donated to the war effort to make weapons.

Speaking of weaponry, when Kopp makes clear toy candy, it’s like watching one of those cooking shows in which the perfectionistic chef is in total control and his apprentice (me) needs to be reprimanded on which steps to do next. When it’s time to demo and people are around, we try to keep things more civilized.

 Kopp will offer clear toy candy demonstrations this month at the following two events:

  • 8, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.—Fort Hunter Victorian Christmas, in the summer kitchen attached to the mansion, behind the gift shop
  • 14, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.—Linglestown Square Christkindlmarkt

 

Toy Kitchen

If you’re feeling ambitious, here’s how to make your own clear toy candy. But be warned, it’s a fussy production. There will be sunk costs in the equipment, but the candy ingredients are inexpensive.

You may find a similar recipe containing barley sugar and cream of tartar. That recipe dates from prior to 1818, when imported cane sugar became cheap and plentiful in Pennsylvania. For best results, make this candy when the weather is cold and free of humidity.

Special Equipment

  • Pot with pouring spout
  • Cast iron clear toy molds
  • Candy thermometer
  • Paper towels
  • Metal file

Ingredients

  • Olive oil or non-stick cooking spray
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2/3 cup corn syrup
  • Red, green and yellow food coloring

 

Instructions

Prepare Molds

  1. Lay molds on flat surface.
  2. Lubricate lightly with olive oil or non-stick cooking spray.
  3. Use clamps or rubber bands to secure mold pairs together.

Start Cooking

  1. Combine sugar, water and corn syrup in pot.
  2. Attach thermometer to side, without it touching the pot’s bottom. Do not stir, which can cloud the candy.
  3. At 250 degrees, add several drops of food coloring. Do not stir. Boiling will churn the color and distribute it
  4. Heat to 300 degrees.

Mold the Candy

  1. Remove from heat, remove the thermometer, and wait for the bubbles to pop. Ignore the old adage and watch the pot, because you do not want the liquid to cool and harden in your pot.
  2. Pour liquid into molds.
  3. Remove from molds when the candy gets hard.
  4. Wipe oil from candy with a paper towel.
  5. Trim any sharp edges with a file.
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