A Day in the Life of a Mackinac Island Fudgemaker 7/9/09

No doubt about it, Mackinac Island is known for its fudge.  With a fudge shop on practically every corner (and some not on corners), there are around 17 stores (divided between JoAnn’s, May’s, Murdick’s, Murray’s, Ryba’s, and the new kid on the block, Sander’s) that sell the confection.  Judy, one of my condo friends, knew Lisa, the sales manager at JoAnn’s, and introduced us.  Lisa was kind enough to allow me to follow Ben, her production manager, through the fudge making process.  Before I go any further, here’s a warning.  This blog is guaranteed to produce a sugar rush and the urge to go out and buy large quantities of chocolate!

Ask any carriage tour driver the statistics about fudge on Mackinac Island, and they will all tell you the same thing, “10,000 lbs. of fudge goes off the island each day”.  When I asked Lisa that question, she said that was probably a good estimate a few years ago.  Now, she thinks it would be safe to say that tourists take home “thousands and thousands of pounds”  each day when they leave the island, or have it shipped off the island to family and friends.  Today, Lisa had ordered 490 lbs. of fudge (different flavors) to be made, based on what was needed in her store – remember, that’s just one of 17 stores.  She said that plain chocolate was by far the most popular, followed by chocolate pecan, and chocolate peanut butter.

I arrived at JoAnn’s Wednesday morning to find the dray had just unloaded one of the main fudge ingredients in front of the store – sugar.  Kristi from St. Paul, Minnesota and Yana from Russia were busy with customers at the display counter.

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Lisa introduced me to Ben, who is from Marquette, Michigan, and he told me a little about himself.  Ben’s brother had worked at JoAnn’s for several years until he met his future wife, a co-worker at JoAnn’s, who was from England.  They have since married and now live in London.  Ben had always wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a candymaker; so he applied to JoAnn’s and has been there 10 years, working his way up to his present position.  Ben met Yana, his girlfriend, last year when she began working at the shop.  He returned to Russia with her this winter and met her family, and now they are both back on the island.  Ahh, romance!  And Ben doesn’t even have to go out and buy chocolates for her!

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I assured Ben that I didn’t want any secret recipes or ingredients for their fudge, but could he give me some idea of what went into a basic recipe.  He laughed, and said there were no secret ingredients.  He thought everyone on the island who makes fudge uses the same ingredients – sugar (both granulated and inverted-a creamy sugar), corn syrup, butter, coffee creamer (liquid), vanilla, and a dash of salt.  Mixed with that is whatever turns that basic recipe into the 27 different flavors that JoAnn’s sells.  Those ingredients (nuts, marshmallows, peanut butter, cookies, etc.) are added after the basic mixture has been cooked and poured on the marble tables to cool.

“So if the ingredients are the same, why does the fudge from each shop on the island taste different?” I asked.  Ben said, “Basic fudge can vary in flavor for a variety of reasons – the temperature at which it is cooked, the weather (especially the humidity), the amount of time on the cooling table, and the candymaker’s experience.” 

We went into the kitchen, and I asked Ben how they decide which flavors to make each day.  He said if they have less than two trays (each tray holds 20 slices – 1/2 lb. per slice) on hand, they would need to replenish that flavor. 

The first fudge flavor being made that morning was peanut butter.  Ben began the candymaking process, mixing together the two types of sugar, the corn syrup, and the salt.  Those ingredients are then poured into a huge copper kettle which is placed on a burner fired by propane. 

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Next, the coffee creamer is added, and then the butter.

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After several minutes of cooking over that hot burner, the candy thermometer is hung on the stand above the pot so the fudge maker can watch it rise to the exactly right temperature.  If the mixture is 1/2 a degree too hot, it will crystallize and most likely have to be tossed out.  If it is 1/2 degree too cool, it won’t set up properly.  They can try to remedy that by adding more coffee creamer and heating it up to the correct temperature.

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Next in the process is to pour the hot mixture out onto the marble slab to cool.  In this case, the peanut butter has already been spread out on the slab.  The temperature of the marble is very important.  Ben said it should be at room temperature.  In the spring and the fall, when the temperature outside is very cool – or even cold – they place electric blankets on the marble tops overnight to keep them from becoming too cold.  If they get too warm (a warm day, or just from having several batches of hot candy poured on), the candymakers will pour ice on the slabs and allow them to cool off.  The overhead fans help with that also.  It’s a tricky process keeping those tables at the right temperature.

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Now the vanilla is added.  Why now?  Why isn’t it added to the cooking mixture over the fire?  Ok – I’m throwing in a secret here.  The vanilla is mainly added for the aroma.  When it is poured onto the hot candy, it evaporates, and the scent is caught by the overhead fans and pushed into the vent over the door. Walk by any fudge shop on Mackinac and you will smell that delicious aroma spilling out onto the sidewalk.  You just automatically turn and walk in the door!

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 Ben spends the next few minutes occasionally taking a small utensil and testing the consistency of the fudge.  When he is satisfied that the time is right, he begins cutting the peanut butter into the candy, and when that has set up to his satisfaction, he removes the borders that have held the candy on the table.

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By this time, quite a crowd has gathered.  At any of the fudge shops, when passers-by look inside and see fudgemakers pour out a batch onto the marble, that is a clue that the fun part is about to begin.  Experienced fudgemakers can put on a real show in the tempering, shaping, and sculpturing parts of the process.  Tempering is simply moving the fudge around on the marble top to cool it down so it will set up properly to cut.  Ben is a real artist at tempering, AND at making the crowd gasp when he begins to “throw” the fudge up in the air.

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I asked Ben if he ever goofed up and hit someone in the crowd with one of his fudge “ribbons”.  He laughed and said, “It’s only happened a time or two in 10 years, and each one who got hit got free fudge.”

While Ben had the crowd entertained, Kyle and Ethan, two young men from Millington, Michigan, had begun making the next batch – chocolate turtle.  While Ethan mixed the ingredients (this time adding unsweetened cocoa chips to the basic recipe) over the fire, Kyle was rolling our strips of caramel that would be added later.

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 Ben is now into the shaping of the fudge on the table.  He folds the candy into itself with a special spatula as he walks repeatedly around the table.  When he is satisfied with the shape, he begins to sculpt the batch into its final form for cutting.

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Ethan and Kyles pour out the batch of chocolate fudge, and the whole process begins again. 

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After the batch is cut into 1/2 lb. slices, they either go into the display counter to be snapped up by fudge-hungry customers, go into storage for a short time until they are needed, or may be sent out to their other store if they are running low on a particular flavor.  Wherever it ends up, it won’t last long before it is in a happy tourist’s bag.

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As I thanked Lisa for allowing me to shadow Ben, she asked me what my favorite flavor was.  “Chocolate pecan,” I answered quickly.  “Oh my gosh, it’s yummy!”  “Have you ever tried the double dark chocolate with pecans?” Lisa asked.  “No”, I said.  She cut me a sample, and I put it in my mouth, where the flavor of the dark chocolate exploded on my tongue.  I laughed.  “New favorite!”

A Few Fudge Facts:

1)  The smallest amount of fudge that any shop will sell is 1/2 slice, which is 1/4 lb.

2)  The shops will give out free samples, if you ask for them. 

3)  The kettles and marble slabs are only cleaned with water.  Marble is very porous and would absorb any chemical cleanser, so only water is used.

4)  The entire fudgemaking process from mixing ingredients to cutting the finished fudge takes approximately 45 minutes.

5)  Each batch weighs about 35 lbs.

6)  Fudge should not be refrigerated.  It will keep at room temperature for two weeks.  It can be frozen for up to six months.

7)  Fudge is the island’s only exported product.

8)  The best way to decide which fudge shop you like best is to buy half of a slice of plain chocolate at each shop, then taste test.

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6 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Mackinac Island Fudgemaker 7/9/09

  1. GREAT article on the fudge. Do you know how many emails WE’RE going to get reminding US we haven’t mailed out fudge to our friends in awhile???!!!
    Can’t wait to see Julie & the rest of your family.

  2. Haven`t had time to read this blog yet, I`m off to the dentist, but I just HAD to see the pictures before I leave to go on my dreaded trip. Gosh,I`ve got drool running down my chin, and no telling what the dentist will find, just from looking at all this “yummy” fudge. LOVE IT.

  3. Now that I’ve wiped the drool off of my computer, so I don’t electrocute myself, was a delicious column with delicious pictures. (Don’t send the tulip bulbs together with the fudge. :-))

    • I’ve actually taken care of getting a box from the post office, and all I have to do is put as many as I can into a loose plastic bag (so dirt doesn’t end up in every post office from here to Virginia), then stuff them in the box and mail. So I am making progress!

      Love ya!

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