Why I bake from scratch

I grew up in Berks County, PA in the 1970's. A hop, skip and a jump from Lancaster County and Amish country. Quiet, quaint, safe and pure. The cleanest, coldest water flowing naturally from springs, watercress growing wild in the creeks, raspberries and blackberries ripe and free for the picking. The fields of corn to play hide and seek in and acres of fruit trees seemed never ending and always provided children with hours of places to explore and things to do outside.

In the summer, my mother would take us grocery shopping in Amish country. On the drive there we would have the pleasure of witnessing the most simplistic and communal way of living known to me. Barefoot children playing, the ever-impressive barn raising, one room school houses, horse and buggies plus some of the finest woodworking and quilting around. The highlight of these trips was the road-side stands. Magnificent fruits and vegetables, yummy pastries and breads all hand-picked or hand-made by the Amish family that was selling it at the end of their driveway. Everything we ate was fresh, ripe and free of additives or preservatives.

At the heart of Berks County is the city of Reading. Reading and the surrounding areas are known for candy (and pretzels but that’s for another blog). The Hershey’s Chocolate factory as well as R.M. Palmer Candy, where virtually all Easter candy was made at one time and Luden's which was know for cough drops but was also the creator of the 5th Ave candy bar. There were also countless other Mom & Pop candy and chocolate shops enticed our taste buds from an early age. Consequently, our Easter baskets were "to die for" as kids.  

While my maternal grandmother (Nannie) was alive, I curiously asked her if we had any other bakers in the family.  She relayed to me that my great-grandparents were proprietors of a hotel and restaurant and that she had nieces, nephews and sons-in-law who were in the food industry as well as her son (my uncle). My uncle Johnny worked in a small bakery in downtown Reading called Wenger's. He would always bring us sticky buns and vanilla twists for holiday family gatherings. What a special treat that was! I will never forget the taste of their gooey sticky buns or their sweet and savory vanilla twists on Christmas morning.

Nannie was a wealth of knowledge in the kitchen. When I was in my early 20’s, I wanted to try baking without any pre-made or canned products. In other words, from scratch. I remember wanting to make a pumpkin pie from a real pumpkin and not a can. She explained that using baking pumpkins was key to a good pie as they are less stringy and more meaty than carving pumpkins. She eagerly walked me through preparing the pumpkin for the pie and even a crust made with lard. I couldn’t believe how good it was! Looking back on this now, it was this small challenge to myself that started my love of baking from scratch.  While the process may take longer, the end results are more pleasing to the palate and utterly satisfying for the soul.  

To give credit to my paternal grandmother (Grammy), she was our secret sweet-tooth. I am positive the sugar-loving genes came from her. At Halloween, Christmas and Easter, she would fill a large paper grocery bag with a box of our favorite sugary cereal, Hershey’s bars, Hershey's kisses, her home-made peanut butter eggs, giant chocolate bunnies or Santas and the occasional stuffed animal or game for good measure. You name it, if it contained sugar, it was in the bag. We each got our own bag. Got to love Grandmas! As I became an adult, she switched it up (thankfully) and started gifting me books on candy making, molds and tools of all kinds. I firmly believe she knew before me that I would end up in this line of work. Those tools came in handy 15 years ago when I started this process and they are still in use today.   

My parents never really denied us sweet treats. They knew the consequences of eating too much candy and we learned that lesson young, somewhat the hard way, with tummy aches. It only happened a few times but nausea was enough of a lesson for us. Pepto-Bismol was a feared product in our house as the end result for us was never as the bottle stated.  After that lesson was learned, all my Mother or Father had to do was mention Pepto-Bismol with a smile and we backed off the candy. 

As a child, loving candy as I did, I became hooked on the original candies made from scratch at the local shops as the taste was far superior to that of the commercially machine-made, preservative filled ones and the process was more intriguing by hand than a machine. I especially loved the candy store that had a viewing window to watch them making it fresh. We had one of those Mom & Pop shops not far from where we lived and I remember riding our bikes there for chocolate covered pretzels. Still my all-time favorite flavor combination. I recall, walking in the front door, standing still for a few seconds and just inhaling the aromas deeply through my nose. The smell of candy and chocolate was so inviting and dare I admit, calming. Even as a young adult I dreamed about one day having my own candy store.  

So, here we are. A little later in life than I would have liked but that’s OK. I believe things happen when they are meant to happen. The craziness of 2020 allowed me some time to reflect on what really makes me happy. My caramels, candies and baked goods bring a joy to people’s faces that is hard to match. And THAT is what makes me happy.

Say hello to my new business...Colorado Caramel Company


As always, stay kind.

-Ann Marie