Archive for July, 2008

I Love My Thermapen Already…

Friday, July 11th, 2008

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A complimentary bag of Jelly Bellies!? How sweet is that! I haven’t had them in such a long time — maybe a decade? — and this little surprise made my afternoon. Blueberry? Buttered popcorn? Bubble Gum? Apple? Eating them brings back such memories, and jelly bean eating strategies….

I’m Finding It Hard to Hold a Grudge Against My Lying Thermometers

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

I recently discovered that the traditional Taylor analog candy thermometer that I’ve been using for the past few months is reading temperatures 8 degrees higher than they actually are. I thought I was boiling my caramels to 248F when, in fact, they were only reaching 240. I’ve been really concerned by how soft my caramels have been turning out (and in hindsight, their suspiciously short boiling times), but since I’ve starting making them in bigger batches on a powerful stovetop (I switched commercial kitchens a month ago), I thought that the problem had more to do with scaling up the recipes and different boiling times.

But finally, I boiled up a pot of water, and instead of reading 212F, my thermometer read 220F.

I ran out to some stores, and was pretty disappointed by the options — either another analog version or a digital probe on a rope. I’ve used a probe in the past and I didn’t really like its odd clumsiness, loose rope, or slow reaction time w/ candy, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy my third Taylor analog, as if I was some kind of groupie rather than a desperate chocolatier. I got the probe.

So, I made a test batch of caramel, cooked to 248F, and lo, it set up like real chewy caramels should. I liked how much more comfortable it was to read the temp on the digital display on the counter, rather than lowering my head to eye level to keep track like with the analog, but I didn’t like how the digital jumped in temp, and wouldn’t let me set an alert for two other numbers that I care about — either 247 or 236 ( I swear, the interface just skips over those numbers; it’s not like they’re both odd or even). And it didn’t even beep when it reached numbers that I set it to.

I also wanted to test something with my marshmallows recipe, so I made a small test batch of my passion fruit. The marshmallow fluff came out very, very thick. I knew that there would be some difference, given that I’ve been boiling to 228F instead of 236F (which is a difference of about 7% water), but this was thicker than any batch I’d ever made before.

It seemed like a good time to try out the boiling water test on this new thermometer. It read 208F — 4F lower than the actual temp. So. Both thermometers are jacked, and read 12F apart.

This lead to two concerns: what to do with my thermometers and what to do with my recipes.

I just want a trusty thermometer that helps me make consistent candy. Theoretically, I could still use either thermometer, and mentally adjust for the differences in temp while testing them weekly to keep track of how much I should adjust. But that seems prone to mistakes (and making me annoyed). I looked at the reviews on Amazon for candy thermometers, and few get higher than 3.5 stars, and those that get higher tend to have 1-2 reviews only. It seems candymakers are not high on thermometer technologists’ priority list.

I finally decided to splurge and get the only thermometer that I feel trust for: the thermapen (in BonBonBar blue!). I’ve used it before at a job, and it was accurate. Its sensor is a thermocouple instead of a thermistor, so it takes only 3-4 seconds to get a reading (an accurate one, no less) and its sensor is in the last 1/8″ of its tip so it doesn’t need to be submerged by an inch or more like other thermometers.

The catch is that it’s handheld, so it can’t be clipped to the side of the pot. And it’s $89. Logically, my worst fear is losing my grip and dropping my $89 thermometer into a pot of bubbling sugar.

But it should last for years, and the company seems to be great about customer care — recalibrating if necessary (and incidentally, responded well to my emailed question and my questions over the phone; and it didn’t hurt that the rep solemnly told me that he had checked out my website, and my chocolates were the most beautiful he’d ever seen :)).

I think it’s worth the money in prevented failed batches and the number of doomed thermometers that I would have bought in the next few years… as long as I don’t lose my grip.

I hope that my only problem is that I won’t know which I love more, my thermapen or my laser thermometer.

As for the thermometers I have now, I’ll return the probe since it arrived faulty. I never tested my analog thermometer when I first got it, so I really don’t know if it was off to begin with or rate of decline. I wish I did because then I’d have a better idea of how things turned out at a variety of temps; I think it’s been declining for about a month.

And it’s true that I can’t be completely disappointed by them — they may have improved two of my lines. Perhaps my caramels should be boiled to 252 instead of 248 (but definitely not 240), and perhaps my marshmallows should be boiled to 228 instead of 236 (but definitely not 240). I wouldn’t have tried such variations on my own. I’ve noticed that my marshmallows have been getting lighter and fluffier lately, and I rather like that. I may adjust a little more, but it’s a good new avenue.

Of course, I’m going to have to test this all over again when my thermapen arrives, just to make sure. First, I’ll boil water…

Farmers Market Beginnings

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

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So, I’ve sold at the Century City Farmers Market twice so far, and it’s very thought-provoking… probably b/c you spend so many hours standing in your tent and looking out at people, pretty much all you can do is think and observe…

Here are my musings so far:

It reminds me a little of camping. You only have what you bring, and if you forget something, you do without, fashion something, or ask others. There is, of course, a mall across the walkway, but it’s far for me to run and grab something. This week, I remembered to bring twine to tie my tent to the fence to prevent it from flying away, but I forgot scissors. I ended up tying up my tent with my plastic bags-as-rope instead.

I’ve taken to calling out some variation of “Handmade Candy Bars, Caramels, and Marshmallows!” when people go by (the market is in a pretty big plaza, so there’s a wide distance btw the vendor across the path and me; people aren’t forced against your booth like at some other markets). I didn’t have a banner the first time, so it was really necessary b/c my products aren’t exactly prominent enough to speak for themselves. If I see that they’re already looking at my booth, I say “free samples!” but I don’t generally look directly at them.

People expect to sample anything they might buy, or just expect samples in general. My marshmallows aren’t selling all that much so far, and I think it’s in part b/c I haven’t brought samples of them yet. The Health Dept permit dictates that I pre-wrap all of my samples. I usually cut marshmallows into 4 pieces for samples, so I’ve just been putting off the process of individually wrapping such tiny marshmallows pieces for the market (but I’m going to try it this upcoming week). People don’t really seem to be influenced by my Gourmet clip that I put next to them. Only a couple have actually read it, but anyone who glances at the marshmallows is innocently informed that “Gourmet magazine said that they’re the most fabulous marshmallows they’ve ever tasted.” The usual response is just a nod.

The market is really like a race, and this one is especially short — only 3 hours at most to get rid of your products. Hence, my calling out to anyone within earshot.

To display my bars, I ended up printing photo-quality sheets with their cross-section pic and description to put in frames, and I use leftovers from previous weeks as my display bars, so it’s ok if they’re damaged from the heat as long as they don’t look too melty. I had them propped up the first week, but one fell from the wind and the glass shattered. This week, I took off all the glass, and taped the pic’s into the frames as neatly as I could and put them flat. I have to look around harded for those clear acrylic frames in 8×10 so that they will stand up and it’s ok if they fall (I could only find them in smaller sizes last week)

The best feeling so far is when you can tell that someone is walking straight to your booth and they already know what they want to buy. I also liked it when someone came up to the booth on her cell phone excitedly saying “…she has a flavor she didn’t have last time…” And of course, when someone comes back with friends/colleagues to show off the products.

I get thirsty from the heat and calling out, but I don’t want to drink too much b/c going to the bathroom is a pain (far from my booth) and kind of gross (johnny on the spot).

Just like with my online sales, I wholeheartedly worship repeat customers, and feel a little weak-kneed when I’m around them.

The scale of purchases is very different from online. My most popular items online are boxes of 6 candy bars, which is $30. Most people at the market by one to three bars, and if they buy more (or even not that much sometimes), they almost always ask for a discount. I don’t really know what to do about that. I’m sorry, but a 4-bar sale is not a rare or huge sale for me, no matter how appreciative I am of it. The best I can think of is to throw in a couple extra caramel samples. I’m going to bring extra gift boxes so that I can put them together on the spot for people, but I hope they don’t expect a discount on them… That’s just not the scale of my business. I use less packaging at the market, but I still have to pay set fees every week that I have to cover and factor in.

People attempt to bargain more than I thought they would, or sometimes pick a price out of thin air. “I’ll take one of these candy bars… It’s a dollar….” as the customer opened her bag. “Um, no… it’s five dollars…” She scoffed and walked away. A few people have been scared off by the price, which I’m sure happens online, but it’s something to see their faces and hear their voices in person. If they’re nice about it and regretful that they can’t afford it, I practically force them to take an extra sample or two with them, because I genuinely want people to eat good candy. But if they’re rude about it, I let them go. I also try to explain why they’re so spendy.

It’s come to a point where I get completely giddy when people give me exact change. My candy bars are $5, but my marshmallows are $6 and my caramels $7 so I have needs for singles. I always leave with fewer bills than I brought — few ones, many twenties. Vendors generally help each other out if you need to break a $20. I dread the day I forget to go to the bank for $1s and $5s if I’m low…. though the market is surrounded by banks, so it shouldn’t be huge deal. But I hate to leave my booth/things alone, even if the other vendors will watch out for it.

I am between a hummus stand called BabaFoods and the ThinKrisps stand (which sells crunchy baked discs of parmesan and cheddar cheeses in different flavors), and all of their vendors are friendly and helpful. I’ve become addicted to both of their products, and especially with the hummus people, I’m hoping that our trading system keeps up (they especially like my cinnamon almond caramels) — I will not rest until I have had a container of all of their flavors, and will then choose what I want based on my mood. This week, Pesto Hummus… Yum! I even dipped some lemon-pepper parmesan crisps in it… Yum!

I admire the Hummus people, btw, for how much setup their booth requires that they go through. They bring lots of coolers with ice b/c the hummus is in a sort of indented table on ice for the whole market. It melts and gets wet, but they pack and unpack so cleanly. They get there maybe 2.5 hours before the market officially starts.

I bring two coolers, and one is a medium max-cold and one is only a mini. It was 70F my first time and 80F my second time. I put extra ice packs in my cooler the second time, but I think it got too cold — I saw a kid kind of gnaw at the orange bar sample that she had. I use my handy laser thermometer to monitor the temp, but it is a little uneven in the cooler.

I bought my tent used for $40, but it’s old and heavy. Another vendor guessed it was made in roughly 1964. They’re much lighter, and cleaner now. I don’t have a dolly, so I bring everything piece by piece across the plaza (though I’d probably be able to borrow a dolly if I inquired around, but part of me likes the exercise). I also have to move my car from where we unload… to a lot that charges $9 to park!

One customer suggested that I ask for people’s business cards so that I can add them to my mailing list for corporate holiday sales (which by the way, is a major reason for my selling at this market), which I think is a fantastic idea. Maybe I should offer a once a month drawing for a free box of 6 candy bars (or something??) as an incentive to give their business card? I could get a little jar for them.

A lot of people take my business card even if they don’t buy anything, which is great.