Liz Gutman and Jen King didn’t set out to become Brooklyn’s hottest artisan candy-creating duo.
Sure, they were each sweet on sugar, but when they met as pastry students at the French Culinary Institute in 2007, Gutman aspired to become the next cake-crafting Ron Ben-Israel. “Everyone goes into pastry school with their own kinds of ideas, and I thought I was going to do specialty cakes,” she recalls.
King, on the other hand, was plotting a restaurant route, working her way up the pastry ladder at New York’s top kitchens. “Did I ever imagine that candy was in my future? I can say absolutely not,” she says.
But while neither woman was particularly keen on candy when they met over bowls of ganache and nougat, a winding Candyland-style road of gumdrops and lollipops, internships and kitchen stints, would land them at Liddabit Sweets, where they create “craft candy” including an artisan answer to the Snickers bar that could only have been born in Brooklyn.
From the start, Gutman and King knew they had chemistry in the kitchen. “We liked each other and were friends,” says King, “but we also both understood that when working in a kitchen, you have to settle in and put your head down.”
After graduating in 2008, the newly minted pastry cooks kept in touch but went their separate ways. Uptown, King worked the punishing lines at Per Se and tested recipes for cookbook author Dorie Greenspan on the side. Down in the Essex Market on the Lower East Side, Gutman interned at Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, learning to craft the perfect dark and milk chocolate bars and how to avoid fat blooms (just agitate the temper more) and sugar blooms (keep the surface dry). “Working with chocolate made me fall in love with candy,” Gutman says.
Over two years, while making countless Roni-Sue chocolate-covered-bacon “pig candies,” Gutman was inspired to concoct the first of what would be many original confections: her now-famous beer and pretzel caramel made with Brooklyn Brewery brew and crunchy chunks of Greenmarket pretzels. Soon the idea of an ingredient-driven, handcrafted candy company had begun to churn in her mind like the first determined bubble rising to the surface of a pot of tempered chocolate. She decided to approach King with an idea.
“Initially, I was thinking of a baked goods and bonbons kind of thing,” she says. “Jen came along for the ride.”
Field research around Brooklyn Flea and the shelves of Williamsburg’s locavore stores revealed a plethora of truffles and baked goods already on offer. “A lot of people were already doing bonbons really well,” Gutman realized. They knew they wanted to come up with something that nobody was making. And the thing they decided on was candy with the kind of credentials that would lure Michael Pollan.
The name Liddabit Sweets was reappropriated from Gutman’s little brother’s early attempts at pronouncing “Elizabeth.” But also, King explains, “when the candy is this good, you don’t need a whole lot—just a ‘Lidabbit.’”
They had a sweet idea and a sticky name, but they didn’t have a clear business plan—or start-up capital. Without financial backing, they realized they couldn’t afford the priciest chocolate on the market—nor were they willing to compromise with less-than-stellar ingredients. So they set to work experimenting.
“We decided to make chocolate more of a backseat driver,” says King, “and focus on the more important filling.”
But they allowed no filler in that filling—sinking their meager budget into upstanding ingredients, like locavore honey, cream, maple syrup and butter. And, just in time for the 2009 holiday season, they rolled out an ambitious initial lineup of handcrafted candy bars—the now-famous “snacker bar,” a combination of chewy, luscious caramel, salty, crunchy nuts and velvety nougat that’s an artisan makeover of the supermarket standby, as well as the PB&J, a candy bar riff on the sandwich—plus lollipops, brittles, honeycomb candies and a smattering of killer caramels.
Of course, cooking all that candy was a lot harder than taking candy from a baby. “Candy bars are a huge pain in the ass,” Gutman admits. “They’re just really labor intensive.” Plus the two women weren’t just making everything by hand but also packaging and selling it themselves. From mid-October straight through Christmas Eve, they worked nonstop 16- to 20-hour days (with the occasional overnighter sprinkled in), mixing and melting honey and nougat, hand-wrapping King bars and combing over their inventory with a steady flow of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia streamed from Netflix to keep them sane.
In the wee hours they convened over beer and hot soup in Williamsburg diners, strategizing ways to perfect their process and avoid ODing on confectionary sugar. “I don’t think I’ve ever quite been through something like that,” King says of the start-up days. “It was like we didn’t have a choice; it was just what we had to do.”
It all paid off. By New Year’s they’d earned a following of rabid fans—and regular orders from retailers like Greene Grape and Marlow & Daughters. Many customers raved that Liddabit’s peanut brittle tasted exactly like what their grandmother used to make. But while the handcrafted offerings may evoke nostalgia, the duo put a new spin on everything they made—upgrading icons with up-to-date ingredients like Sixpoint beer and chili powder.
Recalling her love for Elvis Presley’s favorite snack of a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich, King set out to recreate it in candy bar form. The King bar—named for the rock legend as well as its creator—is perhaps her reigning achievement. To mimic the caramelized-brown-butter taste of the grilled bread, King went with a recipe for brown butter brown sugar shorties gleaned from one of her favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen. Peanut butter nougat—a staple from her days as a student when she “got kind of sick in class from eating so much of it”—substituted for Elvis’s favorite spread. Flatly opposed to artificial banana flavoring, she invented a banana ganache, then played with prototypes to seek out the perfect proportion, finally turning up the flavor with a tablespoon of coarse sea salt. A star was born.
For each and every Liddabit recipe, King goes through a similar creation process, which can take as little as two weeks or as long as two months.
Gutman, on the other hand, unleashed her inner businesswoman, taking to organization, social media, blogging and bookkeeping like a Brit to marzipan. “I’m more of an introvert, the one who loves researching and experimenting in the kitchen,” King says. “Liz is great at talking to people and making connections, so we complement one another.”
Their initial success allowed them to hire several new employees and invest in a tempering machine that streamlined their process. Eventually they set up shop in an incubator space in a Gowanus warehouse shared by around 30 other edible-minded entrepreneurs, including Spoonable, People’s Pops, Salty Road and Butter + Love. But even as they invested in infrastructure, they continued to meticulously wrap every caramel by hand, individually affixing labels onto their magnolia-and-dahlia-printed boxes and hand-dipping each and every one of their candy bars in their studio-size workspace. (They plan to move to a new space of their very own at the end of this year.)
The response didn’t just come in the form of eager orders. Six months after Liddabit began publicly spooning out their caramels and cordials, Workman Publishing approached them about a cookbook deal. “At first we thought, ‘Yeah, maybe in 20 years when we know what we’re doing we’ll write a cookbook, but not now,’” Gutman says. But they set to work and have just released The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook, a 101 how-to bible for the beginner candy cook, complete with 75 recipes.
King and Gutman are the first to admit that candy-making can be a finicky business—but their sassy-scientific prose is like having them right there next to you in the kitchen. “Candy is really, really intimidating to a lot of people,” King says. “We’re trying to demystify that it’s not hard, it’s actually easy.” She pauses. “It’s just a little tricky.”
Throughout the book, the women give candy disciples earnest encouragement and professional pointers, like that extra peanut butter filling can keep in the fridge for up to a month; that your lips are well-suited for gauging temperatures close to the body’s 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit; and that would-be-ruined brown sugar–coffee caramels that for some reason refuse to set make a delicious caramel sauce.
Gutman—who loves science as much as sugar—also includes nerdy knowledge throughout, such as the fact that sugar molecules actually break down as the crystals are heated to create caramelization, and that specific compounds lend buttery, bitter or toasty flavors. Instead of just telling readers, say, how to make sugar syrup, she explains what’s going on chemically.
“It’s about having a very throughout knowledge of the way
certain ingredients act,” she says.
Today, Liddabit sells in person at DUMBO’s Smorgasburg and the Amsterdam Market, stocks the mini bars of the NoMad and Wythe hotels (among others) and pops up on Whole Foods and specialty store shelves around the city. For those not fortunate enough to live in the New York area, they’ll ship all around the country (except in August, when the packaged chocolate tends to melt into a sticky-sweet mess).
So far, the women have been overwhelmed by the reaction to their little candy company. “Liz and I feel pretty humbled and pretty lucky that people’s reception has been this amazing,” King says. “Not in our wildest dreams did we think we’d get the kind of attention we’ve been receiving.”
Gutman acknowledges that asking people to spend $8 on a candy bar when the cost of the average Snickers bar hovers around $1 at first seemed like a leap, but Brooklynites didn’t blink.
“We just had to have faith in how good we knew everything was, and hoped people came along for the ride,” she says. “Luckily, they did.”
Photographs courtesy of The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook