Thursday, December 2, 2021

Sweet tradition: Lansing family keeps up legacy by making candy canes by hand

December 1, 2000
Fabiano —

LANSING - Making candy canes by hand is a dying art.

Only a handful of people in the United States still do it.

Machines have picked up the process, churning out tons of perfectly striped, equally sized, identical canes.

But the personal touch is important to a Lansing family that has been making candy canes since 1924.

“There’s so much tradition if we do it by hand, it would be silly if we didn’t,” says Dan Blair, a candymaker at Fabiano’s Candy Kitchen, 214 S. Charles St., as he checks on a large copper pot filled with sugar, corn syrup and water. The ingredients will form candy ribbons, a variation on the candy cane.

Blair learned how to make the candies from his grandfather, Michael Fabiano, who started the business in 1924. “They don’t all look identical. There might be a stripe bigger than another or one cane bigger than the next, but it gives it that homemade, handpainted look.

“It gives kids a reason to fight. You know, they can say, ‘His is a half-inch larger than mine.”

Once the mixture reaches 310 degrees, Blair and his cousin, Brian Fabiano, take the pot off the stove and dump the liquid on a counter.

“You’ve got to have at least one other person - it’s not a one-person thing,” Blair says. “Three people is prime. Four or five is fun.”

Fabiano often invites friends to help him with the candy.

“I always ask people to come,” he says. “Once, we had 10 people in here. Most of them were just looking, but it was fun.”

The liquid quickly turns to a gel as it cools.

“Once we get a little more control over it, we’ll add some flavoring and some colors,” Blair says as he and Fabiano use knives to keep the liquid from running off the counter.

Fabiano takes a large pair of scissors, about a foot long, and cuts the candy into two pieces. This batch of ribbons will be spearmint, which are green- and red-striped. Fabiano adds green flavoring to one piece of the candy and Blair adds red to the other.

“If you don’t get enough color, it’s almost see-through,” Blair explains.

After kneading the red flavoring into the candy, Blair puts it on a hook on the wall and whips it around the hook to allow air to enter it. As air enters the candy, it starts to turn pink.

Blair must do this for the white parts of traditional peppermint candy canes, which are red- and white-striped.

“The air crystallizes it. Otherwise, it would be clear,” he explains. “They used to use (clear candy canes) in the movies as windows, when you smashed them.”

Fabiano makes three large rolls of dark green candy, which look like huge pickles.

“Candy ribbons are pretty much the same thing as candy canes, only you run it through a crimping machine,” Blair says as he adds the green rolls to the lump of pink. The candy is under a heater to keep it warm to be shaped into ribbons.

“It cools quickly, especially when you pull it thin like this for the ribbon candy,” Blair says as he twists the candy into stripes while pulling the end into a striped line. He frequently turns the candy over to keep both sides warm.

“If it gets cold, it starts cracking on you. If it gets too hot, it comes out uneven, like bones,” Blair says. “It’s just a matter of doing it.”

The striped pieces go to Fabiano, who puts them through the wooden crimping machine to make them wavy.

After he shapes the ribbons, he hands them to another employee, who puts them on a tray to cool down.

The flavor gets stronger as the candy cools, Blair says. He often samples pieces of the candy he is making to make sure it tastes right - “except the flavors I don’t like.”

Fabiano’s makes 12 candy cane flavors, from sassafras to orange.

“Peppermint, spearmint, cinnamon, raspberry - we make more of those than any other flavors,” Blair says. “Mostly the mint flavors are traditional.”

Blair usually doesn’t have to test out the popular flavors, because he has made them so many times.

“I don’t have much of a sweet tooth in the first place,” he says.

Fabiano, who has been helping since he was young, said he doesn’t eat much of the candy, either.

“You get sick of it,” the computer engineering junior said.

Ribbon candy is very popular, particularly because it is no longer common, Blair says.

“You don’t find homemade candy like that very often,” he says. “It’s more popular with the elderly. Often, it’s been a tradition in their family to have ribbon candy.”

When the batch of ribbon candy is finished, Blair and Fabiano clean up the appliances and counter.

“We normally go from one to another with a 10- to 15-minute breather in between to clean up,” Blair says.

Fabiano’s makes about 80 batches of candy canes a year, near Christmas season. Each batch makes about 250 canes. Hard candy is made from the leftovers.

Candy canes each have to be packaged in plastic when they cool down, but ribbon candy is bagged at the store.

Blair usually works nine to 11 hours a day, but near Christmastime, he works up to 15 hours a day. He tries to get all the canes done a week before Christmas. Because Greek Orthodox Christmas is the week after Christmas, he tries “to keep it going for another week.”

In the past 76 years, Fabiano’s has gotten many special requests for candies, including candy canes.

“We did a 30-footer for a customer that weighed 50 pounds,” Blair says. “We had to build a special box to transport it.

“We do larger canes, between 20 to 28 inches. Occasionally, we will get requests for couple- to 4-footers.”

Although the business has grown considerably, Fabiano’s tries to keep it in the family.

“The recipes are from my grandfather,” Blair says. “It’s still a small business, and we’re trying to keep it that way.”

It takes a while to perfect the candy cane trade, Blair says.

“When I have taught other people, I forgot some of the little habit things, like that you need to steam the ingredients for five to 10 minutes before boiling or sugar will stick to the sides and it will burn. Steam gets it all down.

“It’s something they’ve got to really watch me do.”

Blair’s brother Steve, who takes care of some of the paperwork and answering the phone, helps make the candy sometimes. Although he doesn’t like chocolate, he wants to carry on the tradition his grandfather started.

“It’s important to keep with the same theory behind it that you only use the best chocolates and the best ingredients available to come up with the best product.”

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