Friday, April 7, 2006
The Original “Flowing Center” Candy Cups!
I’ve come to realize that about half of how we experience things we eat has to do with experience that we bring to it. A piece of the most amazing cake or the best chocolate during a horrible dinner or at a traumatic time in your life may, actually, leave a bad taste in your mouth. The most mundane sugar morsel might be elevated to ambrosia based on other fantastic associations. Things like candied apples, candy corn and cotton candy all seem to benefit from this phenomenon.
Candy is most often associated with good experiences, as it’s often a reward or an indulgence in the first place. So Valomilks were getting high marks before I even ate them because of my pursuit of them and the lore associated with them.
But really, 2,400 words and four posts later, you’re wondering, what’s all the fuss about? Are they that good?
The chocolate is smooth, a little sugary and has a slight cool feeling when melting on the tongue. The cream is impossibly sticky, though I never had the “run down your chin” experience with them. The flattened marshmallow is sweet, without being cloying or sappy, but it lacks a vanilla kick I was hoping it would have. I was hoping for real vanilla bean essence here, and perhaps it’s my fault for making the candy into something in my head that it would never be. It was smooth, and it’s true that the chocolate and filling go together well, the proportions are just right, but to be honest ... I wasn’t that keen on them.
I’ve given them at least a half a dozen chances now. I’m not a neat freak, but I really don’t like being sticky. It’s just too hard to eat. As I sit here and eat another package of them, I have a moistened washcloth with me to keep wiping my hands and face. I end up taking bigger bites than I want, and instead of thinking about what I’m eating, I’m thinking about what a mess it is. Really, if there were a candy I could advocate for the nude, this would be it (as long as they’re not sitting near an ant hill).
I know there was a lot of build up in this series, but most of that is immaterial to the candy itself. I may end up doing the same for some other coveted bar in the future, though I hope it’s one that’s more transportable. I hope you’ve enjoyed the Saga of the Valomilk and hopefully the actual Valomilks should you get a chance to try them.
Thursday, April 6, 2006
So here I was with 20 packages of Valomilks (come on, I ate four of them while still in Pennsylvania) - ten packed into their original box and inside my suitcase, seven inside my carry on bag in a sealed plastic box and three of my precioussess inside a vacuum-sealed flask. I can only imagine what happened to my suitcase because when it arrived at LAX at baggage claim as it was soaking wet (well, it was raining). The contents were thankfully dry. My laptop bag was bumped around quite a bit as I had trouble finding space for it and then it got moved around by the flight crew.
Now, part of this experiment was not scientific (all right, none of it was). I have no clue if they were intact when they left the Sifer factory, when they arrived or left Candy Favorites or if they were affected by the drive across the state and back, nor when I put them into my luggage. Further, I didn’t open them all that the same time here at home (because I had the intention of eating them, and I do have other candy commitments that I had to keep). So any of them could have ruptured before they got on the plane or sometime after I brought them home. However, I can say that the ones in the thermos did the best ... but that may have less to do with the vacuum seal than the less bumpy treatment.
The box that was in my checked luggage has leaky cups. The packages from my carry-on “tupperware box” has leaky cups. It’s true, the cups leak, some more than others.
I can’t say that the smaller outflows don’t affect the flavor, they do tend to give it a gummy, flaky, sticky spot but they don’t bother me. However, there were some substantial losses in the filling department. Some cups were nearly void of filling (well, there was filling, but it wasn’t filling the cups, it was filling the package and tray). The longer I’ve had them, the less coherent they seem to be. In truth, I am troubled that there is such a high proportion of loss ... I don’t put up with that sort of thing with a Godiva truffle, why would I put up with it with a Valomilk? Are they really that good?
Tomorrow’s Episode: The Valomilk Review
Wednesday, April 5, 2006
The problem with Valomilks is that they have a tendency to pop their tops or leak. So even when you get one as fresh as possible, close to the source, there’s still a chance that they’ve got a little oozing spot. It doesn’t really affect the flavor, just the messiness factor. It’s hard to keep from getting sticky if the cup is already leaking when you bite into it. When I got to my sister’s we each had a package. Of the six cups, three were already oozing, though they had healed themselves. (It’s like they’re filled with a tasty Fix-a-Flat caulk!)
On my long drive back to Pittsburgh from my sister’s in Mechanicsburg, I formulated a plan for getting as many of the Valomilks back to Los Angeles intact, as well as trying as many different ways to fly with them as an experiment. First, I had to figure out what the weakness of the Valomilk was so that I could best combat any disintegration during my continuing journey. My best guess was that flying caused the cups to rupture because of the change in air pressure. How this precisely works is beyond me.
As a structural material, chocolate is probably not the best choice. Sure, in large bars it’s pretty strong but the load bearing members on the side of the candy cup is hardly enough to hold back the considerable pressure of the super-tall cup. Further, the paper of the candy cup provides only the flimsiest of shear wall support, thought the fluting does give greater structural integrity than one might expect.
The weak point of the candy cup is where the sides of the chocolate join its chocolate top.
Any small fissure in the shell will result in the leaking of the vanilla center. It seems rather odd that the viscous filling would want to escape, and further that it would do it at the top of the candy cup and not at the bottom. I have several theories about this:
The first is that the chocolate top creates pressure on the vanilla filling pushing it out wherever it will go, obviously finding the weak spot at the top of the sides the easiest. In most cases the leak seals itself as the vanilla milk meets the air and solidifies (also gluing the paper cup to the candy). This likely releases some pressure and does not recur.
The second theory is that there is an electro-magnetic charge associated with the vanilla filling. This theory is best illustrated by looking at a cross section of the planet Earth. Though the Valomilk has no solid iron core rotating to create the magnetic poles as we know it, I have surmised that there is a static charge associated with the filling in the cups and that further currents that develop once the vacuum of the cup is achieved with the addition of the clingy chocolate topper. So there are these ebbing and flowing currents, flinging off electrons willy-nilly, creating this negative charge. Then you look at the chocolate cup, which is made of a micro-crystalline matrix of cocoa butter which gives chocolate its yielding solidity. The solid parts are positively charged, but the semi-solids may vary in charge. The hull integrity is apparently at odds with the electromagnetic charge of the plasmatic filling. The polarity of the hull and the variable charge of the static flowing center enhances the micro-fractures in the shell, time being a major factor here.
Or maybe banging them around cracks them.
Whatever the cause, the Valomilk is delicate and prone to leaking from a variety of causes. The Valomilk is known to do poorly when frozen and at high altitudes. This presented some challenges when it came to transporting this box of candies back to Los Angeles.
So I decided to sacrifice some of my flowing marshmallow babies in an effort to determine the best way to travel with Valomilks.
First, the experiment: Is freezing actually bad for Valomilks? Technically, no. It’s not the freezing that seems to do the damage, it’s the thawing. I put a reasonably pristine single cup in the freezer overnight at my brother’s and lo and behold, the next morning it was just fine. No leakage, no splitting of the cup. However, upon thawing (just putting it out at room temperature for several hours) it lost hull integrity and started seeping at one of the seams. The good news is that the taste and texture of the candy is unchanged.
I conducted this bit of candy cup cruelty because one of the ideas was to put the Valomilks in my suitcase that would be checked. Now, I’m not certain if the temperature in a USAirways jet hold gets below freezing, but on a cross-continental flight it’s certainly in there for a while. The other issue with checked luggage is I have no clue what they’re going to do with it. It could get dropped, smashed and of course the hold may not be pressurized as well as the passenger cabins. (I know they pressurize the cargo hold, but I’m not sure if it’s done to the same levels as the passenger compartments.)
The other plan for protecting the candy cups was enclosing them in an air-tight, container. I was already traveling with a plastic Tupperware-type container that held my candy for review (the on deck candies that I’d photographed). I could certainly put at least six of them in there, and plan to carry them in my computer bag that would be stowed in the overhead compartment. But I wanted more protection than simply a plastic box.
The first thing that came to mind was a thermos. But how was I going to find a thermos with a neck big enough to put a candy bar into it? A soup thermos seemed to be the best solution, so off to Target we went searching for a small thermos to hold as many Valomilks as possible. I found a very nice one with a stainless steel compartment and a double seal. It was also pretty compact which meant that only three Valomilk packages would be flying in these tony accommodations.
Now, I have to admit that I had some trepidation about trying to take my hermetically sealed goodies on a plane because of the security concerns. I’ve had to explain what’s in my luggage before, but I wasn’t sure how I would explain why I was carrying a dozen candy bars in my carry-on and further, why three of them were in a stainless steel cylinder.
Of course all of my worries and anxiety was for nothing. No one at the Pittsburgh Airport cared much about my thermos ... they just wanted me to take off my shoes.
Tomorrow’s episode: Arrival in Los Angeles
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
I’ve searched high and low in Los Angeles and have not found them. There are a few places that sell them online, but you have to buy a case of 24 (except for Old Time Candy) and I kept rationalizing that I had plenty of candy to try. The thing about Valomilks is although they’re made with care and of fine ingredients in the freaking dead center of the country, they’re rarely found over the Rockies for the simple reason that they don’t travel well.
When I went to Pittsburgh in February, I was invited to visit Candy Favorites (also known as McKeesport Candy Co.) just southeast of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. The fact that the largest internet candy store is based in McKeesport was incredibly fortuitous. I was already planning a visit to my sister’s, in Mechanicsburg, and McKeesport was pretty much on my way.
Well, the thing about Pittsburgh is that it’s wrapped in some sort of a time warping field. My husband jokes that the announcement on the airplane when you land is “The local time is 1958.” He’s not far off, really. For a big city it still has much of its old charm and architecture but has managed to reinvent itself economically since the loss of the steel industry. The geography itself has had its hand in shaping the community as well, by creating barriers of all sorts that segregate areas and isolate the whole Three Rivers area. There is less “urban sprawl” here just by virtue of the Allegheny Mountains hemming the city and surrounding communities in.
I’ve always found Pittsburgh and the area to be exceptionally confusing to navigate, which is due to the hills and gulleys, rivers and historic highways that thread among them. It doesn’t help that the area has never embraced signage. After being lost for nearly an hour and fifteen minutes (on a drive that should have taken 25 minutes), I nearly threw in the towel, but I realized I was just as likely to find my way to the candy company as I was to the turnpike so I persevered. I tossed the map aside and just tried to figure it out as best I could using the sun and the river as my guide.
An hour and a half late, I pulled up to downtown McKeesport. There I met Jon Prince, third generation in the candy biz (just as Russ Sifer of Valomilk is the third generation, see all this stuff it connected!). He showed me around his operation (another story ... maybe later this month) which is positively steeped in history (really, check out their website, the old candy ads are a hoot). At the end, in addition to urging me to take anything I liked from his huge warehouse, he presented me with a box of 24 Valomilks.
It’s the worst thing to happen to me in years. Here I was, traveling, without the benefit of my lovely candy photo studio, no one I was visiting had any interest in them (fools!) and worse, Valomilks were notoriously bad travelers. But there they were, in their gorgeous little box that also opened up to become a display for the buggers and I vowed to save every one of them.
Tomorrow’s episode: The Achilles Heel of the Valomilk
Monday, April 3, 2006
Join me this week as I chronicle my Valomilk Saga in five parts.
Daily candy reviews will continue as usual!
Ever since reading Candy Freak by Steve Almond, I’d been hoping to try a Valomilk. In Candy Freak, Almond goes on a journey to visit the last great independent candy factories in America. Among them are Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, Idaho Spud, Twin Bing and Rocky Road. While I haven’t tried all of these candies (those without links), there was only one I really wanted to try because of the book. It was Sifer’s Valomilk.
Many of the “small manufacturer” candy bars aren’t very appealing to me. Sometimes it’s just because they’re not a good combination for me, marshmallow or cherries aren’t really my favorites. Part of it has to do with the ingredients they use. I prefer real milk chocolate to the waxy substance many of them use because of costs and I like a consistent bar. (Goldenberg’s are the only candy that violates that rule.) Most are referred to as nostalgic or regional candy bars.
Valomilks are the opposite. It’s as if the Sifer’s have gone out of their way to bring the most expensive and elusive ingredients (for a consumer bar) together into one little brown fluted cup. Real milk chocolate, premium egg whites, cane sugar and vanilla. Started in 1931, the Valomilk has an amusing and quaint history, which you can read more about in Candy Freak or on their website. The most important thing to know is that the Valomilk is a tall milk chocolate cup filled with a strong vanilla flowing marshmallow cream.
Now, Valomilks are by no means the only marshmallow cup, but oddly enough there are no plain chocolate and marshmallow candies made by the major three: Hershey, Nestle & Mars.
Each cup is about one ounce and swaddled in the brown fluted paper cup where it was born.
The other similar candy bars would be the Rocky Road, which is an actual bar containing fluffy marshmallow in a long and large plank covered in milk chocolate and cashews. Next there is the Boyer’s Mallo Cup (made in Pennsylvania - review sometime next week), which is a simple, flat milk chocolate cup filled with a flowing marshmallow cream with some coconut in the chocolate. This is not unlike the slightly larger Cup-O-Gold, which is made here in Los Angeles by Adams-Brooks. The Cup-O-Gold also has coconut in it. Then there’s the Idaho Spud, which is a chocolate flavored marshmallow covered in faux dark chocolate and coconut shavings. Naturally, it’s shaped like a potato.
Of course all bets are off on holidays as everyone seems to have a chocolate covered marshmallow shape of some kind.
But no one makes a candy cup like the Valomilk. Which probably explains why it exists to this day. Over the next four days, I’m going to take you on my journey through the world of the Valomilk.
Tomorrow’s episode: How I got a hold of my Valomilks.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.