In the world of artisan sweets, you hear a lot about pâtissiers and chocolatiers, and even makers of specialty doughnuts are having their moment in the sun. What you don’t hear about much is the humble candy bar.
But that may change soon enough if Oakland’s Shiyuan Deng has her way. Since last fall, the self-taught confectioner has been selling an all-natural, 100 percent handmade version of a Snickers bar — a product she’s dubbed the Ramona Bar, after the protagonist of the popular Beverly Cleary children’s books — at high-end Bay Area food shops.
When I caught up with Deng a few days ago, the 24-year-old Portland native told me she didn’t always aspire to be a candymaker. She’d had a handful catering- and food-related jobs, but she studied political science and had gotten a job at a law firm. At that point, maybe two years ago, Deng started feeling more than your usual post-college wave of childhood nostalgia — enough to make her rethink her career plans. She thought about the things she used to love when she was a kid: “Nothing made me think about what it was like being a kid like eating candy.”
For Deng, eating candy brought to mind summertime: no homework, no responsibilities, going up and down on the swing, jumping off. But in trying to rediscover that sense of escape, she realized a fundamental truth: As anyone who’s tried Polly-O String Cheese or a Hot Pocket lately can attest, things you thought were delicious when you were little often taste, well, less than delicious when you eat them as an adult.
As Deng put it, “Your grown-up self is like, ‘What is this? This is not what I remembered.’”
So she started Double Dutch Sweets
with the idea of making “contemporary American confections,” but without using obscure ingredients — she wanted people to recognize the flavors they loved as kids. She also made a conscious decision not to market herself as a chocolate company.
“Artisan candy holds a different place in your imagination than a box of truffles on Valentine’s Day,” she explained.
Once Deng decided that a classic Snickers bar had the flavor profile she wanted to emulate, it took her about a year to develop the product. She watched YouTube videos and looked at recipes online, but mostly she just experimented. She found a blend of El Rey Venezuelan dark chocolate that she liked. She found other healthier, better-tasting alternatives to the standard ingredients that make up a Snickers Bar — butter and cream from Straus Family Creamery, for instance. And since she didn’t want to use any molds, she had to master the technique for hand-cutting and hand-dipping each candy bar to get the clean, consistent look she wanted.
I was tipped off to the Ramona Bar a few weeks ago by an entry on Chowhound
in which a poster named “Morton the Mousse” described the salty-sweet, chocolatey, nougaty treat as “just perfect.”
“It is so like I remember a Snickers to be yet so much better than a Snickers actually is,” the Mousse enthused.
To put that assertion to the test, I picked up a $6 Ramona Bar at the Miette pastry shop in Jack London Square, where Deng makes the candy bars in a small space she rents in the kitchen in back. Then I bought my first actual Snickers bar in years, on sale at Walgreens for only $0.59.
To be fair, the Snickers tasted more or less like I thought it would: everything too sweet by several degrees of order, the caramel softer and not as stretchy as the commercials would lead you to believe — but still, a “satisfying” peanutiness undergirding it all. Of course, it’s also packed with things like corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and what’s listed simply as “artificial flavor.”
The Ramona Bar, first and foremost, is a beautiful piece of candy, especially when you cut into it so you can see the brilliantly white, peanut-flecked cross-section. I loved the candy bar’s true dark chocolate flavor (though maybe I’d prefer it with even a little more bitterness), the stretchiness of the caramel, the way the whole thing gave my jaw a bit of a workout. And the best part of all was the hint of salt, both in the caramel and from the sea-salt flakes sprinkled on top, which helped balance out the sweetness.
- Cross section of the Ramona Bar: Like a Snickers, but better.
Does the difference in quality merit what some would say is an astronomical price difference? I’ll admit I experienced some sticker shock myself, and the price is high enough that I wouldn’t make an unqualified, “go-buy-this-now” recommendation. It is, after all, still a tiny, 1.8-ounce candy bar.
But if you’re feeling nostalgic for the candy-eating bliss of your youth? By all means, check it out. And Deng makes a compelling argument: If she said what she was selling for $6 was three fused-together chocolate truffles, no one would blink an eye.
Meanwhile, Deng has had enough success with the product that she recently quit her law office day job. She’s in the middle of developing a new product that will be similar in concept to the Ramona Bar — she hopes it’ll be available for purchase by the holiday season.
The Ramona Bar
is currently available at a handful of shops in the East Bay: Miette
, both Pasta Shop locations (Fourth Street
), and the Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop
Deng said the candy bars do tend to sell out, so you might want to call ahead to make sure they’re in stock.Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.