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 if Oakland's Shiyuan Deng has her way. Since last fall, the self-taught confectioner has been selling an all-natural, 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.
The 24-year-old Portland native told me she didn't always aspire to be a candymaker. She'd studied political science and got a job at a law firm. But about two years ago, Deng started feeling more than your usual post-college wave of childhood nostalgia. 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."
But in trying to rediscover that sense of childhood bliss, she realized a fundamental truth: Things you thought were delicious when you were little often taste less than delicious when you eat them as an adult.
So Deng 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.
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 found a blend of El Rey Venezuelan dark chocolate she liked. She found other healthier, better-tasting ingredient alternatives — butter and cream from Straus Family Creamery, for instance. And she mastered the technique for hand-cutting and hand-dipping each candy bar to get the clean look she wanted.
I was tipped off to the Ramona Bar by an entry on Chowhound in which a poster named "Morton the Mousse" described the confection 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 kitchen space she rents in back. Then I bought an actual Snickers bar, on sale at Walgreens for only $0.59.
The Snickers tasted more or less like I thought it would: everything too sweet by several degrees of order, the caramel 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 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 and reveal the peanut-flecked cross-section. I loved the dark chocolate flavor, the stretchiness of the caramel, the way the whole thing gave my jaw a bit of a workout. The best part was the hint of salt, both in the caramel and from the sea-salt flakes sprinkled on top, which helped balance out the sweetness.
Does that merit the huge price difference? I experienced some sticker shock myself, so I wouldn't make an unqualified, "go-buy-this-now" recommendation. But if you're 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.
The Ramona Bar is currently available at a handful of shops in the East Bay: Miette, both Pasta Shop locations, and Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop.
The Eatup Launches in Uptown
In the past several weeks, there's been a veritable deluge of mobile food vending events popping up all over Oakland. The latest contender: The Eatup, a new weekly food pod that runs on Fridays, from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., in an unused parking lot at 2025 Telegraph Avenue (the corner of 21st and Telegraph).
Started by two UC Berkeley grads, Austin Luke and Derek Yuan, The Eatup was conceived as "a gathering of gourmet food trucks, DJs, and artists," according to their press release. Luke told me the idea for the pod came about after he and Yuan attended a couple of First Friday Art Murmur events and found that there was a "food desert" of sorts on that particular stretch of Telegraph.
"So we just decided to do it," Luke said.
At first they'd only intended to host the event during First Fridays, but their inaugural event on May 4, was so successful — with a turnout of more than 1,000 people — that Luke and Yuan decided to make it a weekly event. So they went through the application process stipulated by Oakland's new interim mobile food vending policy. Last Friday was their first event that didn't coincide with a First Friday.
Luke explained that the Art Murmur events will still be much bigger, with eight to ten trucks, plus live music and some kind of art component. The non-First-Friday events will be on a smaller scale for now: three or four trucks, with music provided by local DJs.