Hand pulled the old-fashioned way
by Joseph Weagley
Pantelis, Zoe and Petros Tsoukatos are third generation chocolatiers who grew up in Waynesboro, Pa. Their father, Chef George Tsoukatos, had worked in the chocolate industry for more than 30 years. While his children grew up around the business, the three never imagined that they would continue another generation in the chocolate industry.
After completing their educations, they began their professions in nearby Washington, D.C. However, they soon realized that they missed what was once a constant joy in their lives: the aroma of melting chocolate, the busy excitement during the holiday season and seeing the happy faces of their customers. They also missed working with family. They decided they had a mission. With that decision, their family came full circle. In 2007, Chef George, Pantelis, Zoe and Petros opened their own business in Waynesboro, Pa. They named the company “Zoe” because it means “giving life” in Greek.
Chef George and his wife, Elaini, raised their three children with an awareness of fresh, natural and locally grown food. Their culinary knowledge was enhanced by their travels throughout Europe. Together, Chef George and his children create artisan chocolate delights with visionary flavors and extraordinary textures. Their success led to the opening of a second store in Frederick, Maryland a year and a half later. Recognition came when their chocolates were featured in prestigious magazines, including “O: The Oprah Magazine” and “Washingtonian Magazine.”
Despite the sophisticated allure of their chocolates, tradition still has a place at Zoe’s Chocolate Company. Co-owner Zoe Tsoukatos explains that as the holiday season approaches, her family looks forward to the production of handcrafted candy canes that are made from a century old family recipe.
“The recipe that we use is the same recipe that was used by our grandfather, great aunt and great uncle,” Zoe says, pointing out that they were the first members of the family to come to the United States from Greece. “They made chocolates, and they also started making candy canes.”
The process begins at the company’s factory workrooms, behind their storefront, in Waynesboro. Sugar and water are mixed in a copper cooking kettle. Using an antique fire burner that has been in the family for three generations, the mixture is cooked until it reaches the desired temperature. Next, it is poured onto a cooling table. At this point, the amber colored solution looks similar to taffy and it is flipped around on the table until it cools. Then, with gloved hands, the still hot candy is lifted onto a wall mounted steel hook and pulled by hand.
“It’s the same hook that was used by our grandfather,” Zoe says.
As the “taffy” is pulled, air mixes with the candy until it turns white. While still on the hook, one of three different essential oils is added to give the candy just the right amount of flavor. Peppermint is cool and refreshing. Cinnamon is spicy and smooth.
The third flavor, anise, is a traditional European flavor that comes from a flowering plant that is native to the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Sometimes used as an ingredient in liqueurs, anise has a licorice flavor that is popular with adults.
“Once people try it, they like it,” Zoe says.
Next, the soft candy is taken to a table that is warmed from underneath by a fire. Coloring is added to the candy to create the stripes that identify its flavor. Green and red stripes on a white background for peppermint, red stripes on a white background for cinnamon, and red and blue stripes on a white background for anise.
Chef George twirls the candy to keep it moving. Then, he pulls it into a long thick rope. The entire family helps as the candy rope is pulled further along, rolled thinner, and cut to the correct size for a candy cane. Those pieces are passed to employees, called chefs, who roll it by hand to prevent the hot candy from flattening out.
“We keep rolling it until it gets cool and then we crook it,” Zoe says, pointing out that her mother is the family expert at crooking the candy canes. After the candy canes harden, they are individually wrapped. The candy canes are sold at both locations: Waynesboro and Frederick. They are also sold on the company’s website.
As with all handmade items, no two candy canes are ever the same. The hand pulled method is very labor intensive and Zoe’s Chocolate Company is one of only a few businesses that still make candy canes the old fashioned way.
According to history, candy canes originated in Germany during the Christmas of 1670 when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral asked a local candy maker to bend white candy sticks into the shape of a cane to look like a shepherd’s staff. These candy canes were given to children to keep them quiet during the long Christmas service.
This custom of giving candy canes to children during Christmas services spread across Europe. In this way, candy canes became associated with Christmas. Eventually candy canes became popular in America, where red stripes were added at the turn of the 20th century. Around this time, peppermint and wintergreen became the popular flavors. The invention of candy cane making machines led to the mass production of identical candy canes that almost replaced the handmade holiday treats.
Production of candy canes at Zoe’s Chocolate Company usually begins sometime in November.
“As soon as the humidity drops we start production,” Zoe says. “We keep an eye on the weather and if we can start in October, we will.” The less humid weather of autumn ensures that the hard candy stays hard. As the candy cools, it evaporates moisture. If the air is humid, the candy can reabsorb moisture from the air and become soft and sticky.
“A lot of people look forward to our candy canes,” Zoe says, pointing out that Chef George’s reputation for making quality candy was known by the people of Waynesboro before the founding on Zoe’s Chocolate Company. “We only do it once a year, and people who grew up in Waynesboro remember them.”
Customers in surrounding states and across the nation also look forward to Zoe’s candy canes, including Jill Grabowski of Alexandria, Virginia. “I’ve always been addicted to Zoe’s Chocolate and was thrilled when they started making candy canes eight years ago,” Jill says, explaining that she buys the candy canes to give as gifts, to use as party favors and to use as holiday decorations around her home and office. “And, of course,” she says, “I enjoy them as a daily treat.”
The candy canes, along with homemade brittle and peppermint bark, help to make Christmas special for the customers of Zoe’s Chocolate Company.
“I’ve always looked forward to the holiday season and making our candy canes,” Zoe says. “It’s a lot of work, but we love doing it.”
Zoe’s Chocolate Company
34 East Main Street
Waynesboro, PA 17268
121 A North Market Street
Frederick, MD 21701