Let’s get this straight: The Piedmont Candy Co. doesn’t make candy canes.
Candy canes are shiny. They’re crunchy. They stick to your teeth when you chew them.
Piedmont Candy, the maker of Red Bird – North Carolina’s home-grown candy – makes candy sticks and candy puffs. And while some of its candies have red-and-white stripes, and some are flavored with peppermint, it’s a completely different candy experience.
Red Bird isn’t shiny, it’s powdery, even a little chalky. It only crunches a little before it dissolves. It doesn’t stick to your teeth, it melts in your mouth.
Red Bird candy sticks have been part of Carolina Christmases for generations. Once, every lucky kid’s Christmas stocking had an orange in the toe and a stick of Red Bird in the leg.
You cut a hole in the orange, stuck in a candy stick and sucked – very hard, hard enough to make your cheeks hurt – until the pores in the candy dissolved enough to let you pull a little orange juice through the stick. (In theory, anyway: It doesn’t work that well in practice, although it sure kept kids busy on long Christmas afternoons.)
As a company, Piedmont is almost as different as its candy. It’s still family-owned, although it’s on its second family now. It has stayed here, on a side street in Lexington, instead of moving somewhere cheaper to operate, as many candy companies have. It’s even branching out, with new flavors and styles and with retro packages for stores like Williams-Sonoma and Anthropologie.
“They have performed a minor miracle,” says Jeanne Leonard, the granddaughter of Red Bird founder Ed Ebelein. “We’re just glad no one bought it and moved it to Mexico.”
For a company that makes such a colorful product, the Piedmont Candy factory isn’t a colorful place: White metal buildings huddle on a gray gravel parking lot behind a wire fence. The only color comes from small red-and-white striped awnings over a couple of doors and the Red Bird logo (“Southern Refresh-Mints”).
Before you open the door into the factory, you had better love peppermint. The smell tickles your nose and makes your eyes tingle. Neighbors near the plant say they keep their windows open in summer, to enjoy the minty smell.
Getting a look inside the plant isn’t easy. They no longer offer tours – too many regulations, says Brandon Conrad, who’s in charge of food safety and quality assurance.
Recently, though, Conrad and marketing director Jenna Paquin let us pull on hairnets and white lab coats for a walk through the candy process.
The first thing you pass are giant white sacks of Dixie Crystals sugar, 2,400 pounds each. The difference between Red Bird and hard peppermint is right there: Candy canes are made with corn syrup, which makes them hard and shiny. Red Bird uses cane sugar, water and invert sugar (a mix of fructose and glucose, the same as honey), which keeps sugar from crystalizing and retains moisture.
Watching the process that turns sugar into red-and-white-striped peppermints is overwhelming. So much is happening at once:
▪ After the sugars and water go through the cookers, eventually climbing to 300 degrees, they come out as a yellow goo that looks like thick honey. It curves around a metal drum, draping off the back into sheets. As it piles up, clear bits of sugar sheet off like glass, fluttering in the air, and filaments of sugar drape over anything nearby in webs.
▪ Every few minutes, a white-suited worker pulls off a 100-pound mound of of hot yellow sugar. First, he cuts off a 10-pound lump and drops it off on the coloring table. There, workers – who have rubbed their gloves and the table with wax to prevent sticking – grab the hot candy and add a ladle of red dye powder, kneading and turning for about 45 seconds until the lump is a deep, dark red.
▪ The remaining 90 pounds are hurried over to machines called pullers, with four arms that spin around each other, stretching the candy as it cools while workers ladle peppermint oil over it. As air mixes in, it turns from yellow to white, forming graceful whorls that look like manes for life-size My Little Pony dolls.
▪ Then the workers make the stripes: Every 4 minutes, a pillowy white mass of cooled candy gets hefted to a table and shaped into a fat pillow. The dark red candy gets cut with giant scissors – like the ones in your mom’s sewing kit, but as long as your forearm – and shaped into 4 long strips. Each strip is stretched along the white pillow, end to end.
▪ Next, it goes into the rolling machines, long metal rollers with bumps to keep the candy from sticking. Those spin the pillow roll, pressing in the red strips and shaping the candy into a log. As it turns, the red strips wrap around to form spiral stripes. The log stretches out, from fat as a barber pole to skinny as a pencil, then goes through cutters – short for peppermint puffs, long for peppermint sticks.
“Each one is unique,” says Conrad. “You can’t do it the same way twice.”
A steamy affair
Fans blow everywhere, keeping the candy pieces from sticking together as they cool. Rattling along the assembly line, past two women with very quick eyes who pull out misshapen puffs or blobby stripes, they go into the closed humidity room.
That’s off limits to visitors’ eyes, but it’s where a little magic happens: Humidity, basically steam, opens up the pores in the candy, softening it a little. Before the room was created, It used to sit for four days, so Southern humidity could do the job. Now it takes less than an hour. After wrapping and packaging, the company tries to let it sit for two weeks longer before shipping it out.
It keeps softening as it ages, says Paquin. If customers complain their Red Bird is too crunchy, she tells them to leave it open for a few days.
There’s one request she can’t help customers with, though: “ ‘Do you have any sugar-free?’ Absolutely not. It’s sugar.”
Paquin has only been at Piedmont Candy for a year. It’s a lot more fun than her old job: She was in marketing for a conglomerate, working on the account for D-Con, the rodent killer. Here, she gets to work on new flavors and new packaging. Right now, she’s developing a holiday assortment for next year, with flavors like cinnamon bun and gingersnap.
Fans of vanished flavors like sassafras and spearmint still mourn, but Piedmont adds new flavors all the time, like lemon, orange and cotton candy. Paquin also is excited about a new line of chocolate-covered peppermint puffs.
“You can sell peppermint all day long,” she says. “But there’s only so much you can do with that.”
Kids in a candy store
A few blocks away from the plant, at 15. N. Main St., is The Candy Factory, a picturesque candy store now owned by Leigh Foster and Jeanne Leonard, the granddaughters of Red Bird founder Ed Eberlein.
Eberlein was born in Baltimore to a German family. His father died when Eberlein was 18, so he apprenticed with a candy maker and worked his way south. In 1918, he came to Lexington to work for the North Carolina Candy Co., the forerunner to Piedmont Candy. When the Depression hit and a partner died, the plant closed and eventually declared bankruptcy. Eberlein ended up buying it all, including a bunch of boxes labeled “Red Bird.”
He kept the name and came up with penny candy sticks and puffs made from pure cane sugar, Leonard says.
“Nobody had any money, so you had to make the cheapest thing you could.” And in those days, sugar was cheap.
In Eberlein’s day, candy was cooked in copper pots, shaped by hand and sold in the candy store. Ed’s son, Robert, inherited the business and kept it going until 1987, when he was ready to retire.
That’s when Doug Reid stepped in. He had worked in textiles, so he knew manufacturing equipment. Eberlein sold him the factory, keeping the candy store as a family business. The plan was for Eberlein to teach Reid to make candy. But Eberlein died suddenly in a lawn mower accident. Employees taught Reid what he needed to know. Using his knowledge of manufacturing, output rose from 2,000 pounds a day to 6,000 pounds an hour. Reid’s son, Chris, is now the CEO.
The candy store is crammed with all kinds of sweets and novelties. But a big part of what they sell is still Red Bird, in all shapes and sizes. Foster and Leonard, both retired teachers, spend their days surrounded by candy, including fudge that Foster makes every day.
“I think Daddy would be glad someone is still making candy,” she says.
Which peppermint ice cream is the dreamiest?
Yes, I have railed before about the shortage of peppermint ice cream by December. Before the season melted away this year, I decided to branch out and see which peppermint ice creams are worth the brief season. Helen Schwab and I tried six kinds from area supermarkets. Our picks, from best to worst:
1. The Fresh Market Peppermint Bark Ice Cream. It looks strange: Bumpy on top, with white ice cream and bits of peppermint candy and chocolate-covered candy pieces. But it tastes better than it looks. The ice cream has just enough mint flavor to be a good backdrop for the bits of crunchy-cold chocolate. It’s a little like a York peppermint patty in a bowl. $5.99 for 1.5 quarts.
2. Graeter’s French Pot Peppermint Stick Ice cream. Very pink, with a strong peppermint flavor, small veins of peppermint syrup and tiny bits of candy. It’s pricy, but the syrup/ice cream combination works. $5.99 for 1 pint at The Fresh Market.
3. Edy’s Grand Slow-Churned Peppermint. Always reliable, it has a fluffy texture with bits of pink peppermint candy. $6.18 for a quart.
4. Blue Bell Peppermint. Pepto-Bismol ice cream dotted with blue/green and red candy bits. The flavor is flat, though, and not very pepperminty. If we had been eating with our eyes closed, we wouldn’t have guessed the flavor. $5.97 for 1/2 gallon at Walmart.
5. Publix Premium Peppermint Stick Ice Cream. It doesn’t claim to be peppermint, it’s “vanilla with peppermint candy.” That’s a shame: The generous amount of small red and green peppermint bits get lost in the bland vanilla backdrop. $4.50 for 1/2 gallon.
6. Whole Foods Peppermint Italian Gelato. Wrong in so many ways: The all-natural ice cream is gray/pink, with a bumpy top drizzled with chocolate and odd pink bits that don’t taste like anything. The ice cream is chalky instead of the dense/fluffy texture you expect from gelato, and there’s hardly any peppermint flavor. $5.99 for 30.4 ounces.
Peppermint Icebox Yule Log
Because Red Bird peppermint sticks are softer than candy canes, they work well in this classic cake, which uses whipped cream to soften the cookie layers. Regular crushed peppermint would work as well.
About 6 Red Bird peppermint sticks or 12 to 15 puffs (see note), divided
2 cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon confectioner’s sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, divided
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract, plus a few drops more
1 box Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Place peppermint sticks or unwrapped puffs in a resealable freezer bag and crush with a meat pounder or a heavy skillet. You should have about 3/4 cup. Set aside 2 tablespoons for finishing cake.
Beat 1 cup cream with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract, beating until stiff. Fold in 3/4 cup crushed peppermint.
Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Make 4 stacks of 10 cookies. Starting with the first stack, spread peppermint cream between each cookie. (The peppermint might make little lumps, but it’s OK.) Continue with the second and third stacks. Place the stacks on their side, end to end, to form a long row. Do the same with the fourth stack and then either place it on its side beside the long row or on top to form a short branch. Spread more of the peppermint cream over the top, working into any spaces between the cookies.
Place in the freezer for 4 hours or overnight. (If you have any leftover peppermint cream, refrigerate it and add it to the frosting.)
Beat the remaining 1 cup of cream until soft peaks form. Add 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, a few drops of peppermint extract and the cocoa powder. (If you have any leftover peppermint cream, add it here.) Beat until stiff enough to spread, scraping down the mixing bowl a couple of times to get all the cocoa.
Remove the yule log from the freezer and spread the chocolate cream over the top and the sides. Use a fork to draw lines to create bark and to draw circles into the ends of the logs to resemble tree rings. Sprinkle with the remaining crushed peppermint and return to freezer. Remove from freezer. Use a flat spatula to lift from the parchment onto a serving platter. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon confectioner’s sugar. Let stand about 30 minutes. Slice at an angle so the strips show.
NOTES: You can also use hard peppermints or candy canes.
YIELD: About 10 to 12 servings.
Chocolate Peppermint Bark
17 ounces white chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup crushed Red Bird peppermint puffs or sticks, divided
7 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Turn large baking sheet upside down and cover the bottom with foil. Mark a 12-by-9-inch rectangle on the foil.
Place the white chocolate in a metal bowl and set it over a saucepan of barely simmering water (don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth and a candy thermometer registers 110 degrees.
Pour 2/3 cup of the white chocolate over the rectangle in the foil and use a spatula to spread it to fill. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the crushed candy. Refrigerate about 15 minutes, until set.
Place the bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just melted and smooth. Cool about 5 minutes, until barely warm. Pour the chocolate in long lines over the white chocolate base and spread to cover. Refrigerate about 25 minutes, until firm.
Rewarm the remaining white chocolate over barely simmering water. Pour over the bittersweet layer and spread evenly. Sprinkle with the remaining crushed peppermint. Chill until firm.
Lift the foil with the bark to a work surface and cut into 2-inch wide strips. Peel off the foil and cut each strip into 3 pieces, then cut each piece into 2 triangles. Store in the refrigerator.