MUNSTER – A batch of artisan confection makers are making northwest Indiana a sweeter place with treats like brown sugar bourbon marshmallows and mango and poached pear almond frangipane tarts.
Local confectioners are catering not only to the area’s sweet tooth, but a growing demand nationally for locally-sourced, handcrafted food made with pure ingredients. They’re a growing part of an industry that generates $34.5 billion a year in sales nationally and sees an 8.5 percent uptick amid holiday parties, according to the National Confectioners Association.
The artisans spend days painstakingly making sweets they sell at local markets, online and at outlets like Charcuterie in Griffith and the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond. Some have opened shops of their own. And many have decided they want to keep it a one-person operation where they do all the cooking, packaging, marketing and distribution.
Here’s a look at some of the local confectioners operating in Northwest Indiana.
Chris and Tina Little sold fresh handmade candy at the original Little Chocolates location in LaPorte for the past seven years, but added a downtown Valparaiso outpost last year after customers constantly pestered them about expanding there.
They were looking to supplement his income as a union construction worker about a decade ago, bought a mini doughnut machine and hit the festival circuit selling fair food.
Ultimately they decided they’d prefer a brick-and-mortar store. The first Christmas, they only filled two of their six glass cases with homemade candy. But now they make their own truffles, buckeyes and caramels, including the top-selling caramel pecan patties, at both shops.
The Littles hope to build out their café at 113 Lincolnway in Valpo to include coffee, drinking chocolate (a fancier version of hot cocoa) and board games. They’ll also start serving doughnuts once they acquire an $8,000 filter that will keep the place – and their chocolate – from smelling like oil while making the doughnuts.
Munster resident Laurie Norris lost her job of 19 years at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago when she decided to act on the advice people had been telling her for years: sell the toffee she made for the holidays.
Her Tiddleywink Toffee The Thin English Delight, named after a tiny hamlet in England, is now sold at stores across the Chicago area and has been included in Grammy Awards gift bags. She’s also a vendor at markets like Hunt and Gather and One of a Kind at Merchandise Mart.
"It’s snowballed to a point where to go to another level I’d have to hire people, which I might have done if I were 20 years younger," she said. "But I’m happy with where I’m at."
A Dallas company wanted to mass-manufacture her toffee, but she didn’t want to add preservatives to her mom’s recipe to extend the shelf life because it would affect the taste.
The Gourmet Goddess
Chef Katie Sannito’s main business is catering corporate and private parties, but she also used an old family recipe to start selling homemade biscotti.
"I’m Italian-American. It’s a twice-baked cookie, a traditional Italian sweet that was always part of my growing up," she said.
Sannito said her version is nothing like mass-produced biscotti, often so hard and dry it must be dunked in coffee to soften it up. She sells it in places like Tasty Olive Co. in Highland and is interested in offering it at local coffee shops.
"You see with the slower food movement and farm-to-table people want higher quality things," she said. "Whether it’s food or art or furniture-making, there’s more of an appreciation for skills and creating unique handcrafted things."
Mother Wilma’s Marshmallow Factory
Jayme Goffin started making marshmallows when she learned it was possible to do and loves winning over converts with the gourmet s’mores she sells at markets.
"People always tell me they’re not a marshmallow person," she said. "I’ve always explained you wouldn’t like pizza either if you only had a $2 frozen pizza and never tried fresh deep dish."
After learning how from an Alton Brown recipe, Goffin has made marshmallows from scratch using seasonal and often local ingredients like raspberries, blueberries and lemons. She’s come up with dozens of flavors like mojito that she makes with rum, mint and lime.
"It’s a plain vanilla blank canvas," she said. "When I sleep, I dream of new flavors. When I walk down the ice cream aisle, I see flavors I could do. … It’s wonderful people are finally catching on that we artisans have so much passion for what we do."
Evolution Artisan Confections
Richard Cusick, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who’s worked in four-star Chicago restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria and Maxim’s de Paris, opened Evolution Artisan Confections at 901 Calumet Ave., in Valparaiso, with his wife Susie so he could "finish my career the way it started: making amazing food."
She runs the business; he does the cooking.
Cusick had left the world of fine dining to work with food scientists for big corporations like Sarah Lee, but grew weary of spending 200 days out of the year in hotel beds. He opened the shop so he could spend more time with his family and hopefully have his work ethic rub off on his two teen sons. He makes elegant treats like bon bons and macaroons with high-quality ingredients like honey from Kouts, a $185-per-bottle whiskey and a Belgian chocolate that he describes as "pound-for-pound, the Floyd Mayweather of chocolate."
"It’s a very simple concept: We are what we eat," he said. "Processed food manufacturing is manipulated to have a good shelf life. My food is natural. It has a life, and it has a death. … The only way you get a $2 chocolate Easter bunny is by filling it with Crisco and sugar. Then you wonder why it’s not healthy."