Hard-candy work -- sweet, not ea0sy

JACQUES KELLY

December 16, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

Can a Baltimore Christmas be a success without a candy dish full of satiny hard candy?

Just ask Nicholas "Nick" Konstant, 34, whose great-grandfather founded a Lexington Market confectionery operation in 1896. Today, his stall spills over the Eutaw-Lexington corner of the old market building with separate counters for fresh-roasted peanuts -- outdoors on Eutaw Street -- old-fashioned hard candies and other confections, and a thriving coffee and hot dog bar that is often three and four customers deep.

But this time of year, the search for hard-candy sugar is serious business.

Customers are seldom aware that the marvelous taffy and brittle they are buying were made one floor below in a large candy kitchen. For the past 40 years, the Konstant family has been firing up an oversized copper tub to melt the sugar that is the basis of their hearty confections.

The basement cavern has long tables where the slabs of taffies and brittles harden before they are squared off and taken upstairs via a private elevator. The taffy comes out of the kettle so hot the makers have to wear leather gloves to shape it.

Konstant and his staff make the taffy and brittle that have punished the molars and bicuspids of generations of Baltimoreans. Their wares include a peanut brittle, peanut taffy (very chewy and made with molasses), coconut taffy, peanut-coconut taffy, cashew taffy, black walnut brittle, Brazil nut taffy and pecan taffy.

The stand is also legendary for its pulled taffy, a very hardy, sweet candy made in four flavors -- vanilla, chocolate, molasses and peppermint.

"Our taffy gets cooked at a high temperature -- about 280 degrees," Konstant says. "I learned how to make it from my father. It's not at all like saltwater taffy, which is so soft. We break this up with a hammer.

"The Baltimore summers, with their humidity, are rough on it. But people demand it. They can't get it anywhere else," he says.

His wares are known to be addictive. It's not unusual for customers to buy 12 pounds of candy, then mail it all over the country.

Others return to the Konstant market stall for his wide assortment of old-fashioned hard candies -- the Victory Mix (spicy); molded raspberries, filled with preserves; filled candy peanuts; Sunray Dainties; black walnut chips; chocolate-filled straws; mint cream straws; and an Old Time Mix, which is heavy on ribbon candy.

"I get calls all the time that begin, 'I don't know if you can help me . . .,' " Konstant says. The callers often start talking about some candy or confection they recalled from their youth.

Catering to an old-fashioned Baltimorean's sweet tooth can pose certain problems. Sometimes the suppliers that Konstant trades with just cease making certain specialties.

"Often, we can't get the stuff anymore. This is the first Christmas we won't have clear toys. The company that made them for so long was bought out and dropped clear toys from their line," he says.

The clear toy was once a mainstay of the Baltimore Christmas seasonal confections sold at city markets. A clear toy is a solid hard candy molded in the shape of a boat, boot, train or tree. Individual clear toys were translucent and colored in vibrant reds, greens or yellows.

Konstant says that small clear toys are still available on sticks as lollipops.

But this does not fit his idea of what a true clear toy is, so he won't stock the pale imitation.

"My customers wouldn't like them," he says.

His retailing empire does not stop at the candy counter. He also has a packed coffee and hot dog stall, which many of his customers praise for its 42-cent cup of java. All the cardboard coffee cups are imprinted with the Konstant family trademark, a squirrel.

The stall also offers an 85-cent hot dog served at a customer's request with a warm chili sauce, also made in the basement.

"We've been told we ought to sell our chili but we've never gotten into that," Konstant says.

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