The special treats we associate with holidays can spark fond memories, like the cut glass bowl of colorful ribbon candy that made its annual Christmas appearance on the end table next to my grandfather’s recliner. Peppermint taffies in green-and-red were my favorite Christmas stocking stuffer.
At Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen in Knife River, the third- and fourth-generations of the Canelake family are doing their part to keep happy Christmas candy memories alive.
Great! Lakes has a rich history stemming from the first family candy store in Virginia, Minn. where Gust Canelake opened the Virginia Candy Kitchen in 1905. That store was passed down to his sons and was kept running as a candy shop by a family friend.
Enter Andy Matson, Gust’s great-grandson, whose mother and aunt started Great! Lakes 15 years ago where he works with them. Matson is pretty busy these days, as his mom and her siblings recently brought everything full circle by bringing the original candy store back into the family.
Their nutty ice cream bar is a summer favorite, but customers clamor for them right up until Christmas Eve. A reminiscence from Grandpa Canelake’s store when he would roll a small freezer out onto the sidewalk during town celebrations, the bars are chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream covered in coconut and peanuts.
During the holiday season, Great! Lakes revives old-timey Christmas favorites like divinity, a specialty of Matson’s aunt, Patricia Canelake, and ribbon candy made by his mom Pamela Matson, who runs the antique candy machine, rolled out for its annual appearance.
“We get a lot of people who are so excited because they haven’t seen a type of candy in forever and it reminds them of family,” said Matson, adding that hot air, also known as sponge candy, and peanut brittle are traditional seasonal favorites.
When twin sisters Pamela and Patricia started Great! Lakes, their father transcribed his memorized candy recipes, and always with the same message; “His main thing was, ‘Don’t switch it around, and always use the best ingredients you can get. These have been tested for many years,’” said Matson.
Wrapped caramels made with “lots of butter and heavy cream” are ranked by Matson as a top-selling favorite, something he attributes to the perfect consistency. “Ours is not too hard and not too soft, and not overly sweet. It hits a nice middle ground that appeals to everyone,” said Matson.
It’s that kind of consistency, Matson says, that has made Great! Lakes so popular. “We have it dialed in to turn out the classics for consistency, that’s why people come back.”
Shipping from Great! Lakes is available during November through the first part of December, and in-store hours end on December 23, with the store reopening in April.
Callie’s Sweets, Two Harbors
Callie Swanson owns the newest candy shop on the North Shore, located inside the Burlington Station tourist experience that just opened this summer. Swanson says her business idea started with her own sweet memories of childhood, and a desire to add that kind of experience to her hometown.
“Originally it was going to be a gift store with a little bit of candy, but the candy was a huge hit,” said Swanson.
Featuring fudge, caramel and flavored popcorn made on-site, Swanson invites candy-shoppers to sample unique fudge flavors like key lime, s’mores, cookie dough, and cookies ‘n cream. A traditional chocolate fudge takes the cake, and her wrapped caramels are melt-in-your-mouth buttery soft.
One might argue that popcorn doesn’t fall into the candy category, but Callie’s Sweets popcorn fits the bill with its most popular cinnamon roll flavor, and the Burlington Blend of caramel and cheddar cheese is a great combo of sweet and salty.
Callie’s Sweets plans to be open year-round with a big Christmas decorating plan and with online ordering also available.
Gunflint Mercantile, Grand Marais
Going strong for over 10 years, Chelsea Pusc’s handmade truffles have grown in popularity to gain a dedicated following. “The more people try the truffles, the more they are hooked and I’ve really expanded those in the past few years,” Pusc said.
From-scratch fudge, turtles, caramels and peanut butter cups are specialties of the house, and Christmas-themed truffle flavors are making their appearance in the form of eggnog, apple pie, pumpkin and candy cane options.
Pusc does all of the candy production in her store, following the recipe for thin-shelled truffles that she developed herself, and a family recipe for peanut butter cups.
Holiday orders come in from all over the country, says Pusc, who takes orders online and over the phone.
Chocolate Cow, Thunder Bay
Doug and Jane Stanton of Thunder Bay are the owners and candy-makers at Chocolate Cow, whose sweets can be found at Thunder Bay shops. Hanging their collective hat on their “nut-free” designation, the Stantons say that specialty alone brings in business.
Caramels and fudge are their mainstays, and chocolate-dipped bite-size pieces of caramel topped with sea salt is a fan fave. The Stantons say the enrobed caramels are the far-and-away favorites partly because of their generous size, and partly because they are made with quality ingredients.
Sponge toffee, or sponge candy, is so desirable this time of year that the Stantons have a hard time keeping it in stock. Candy cane bark, a layer of dark chocolate with a layer of peppermint-flavored white chocolate, sprinkled with crushed candy cane, is a big seller this time of year, along with Chocolate Cow’s holiday-flavors of dipped pretzels.
Open year-round, Chocolate Cow can be found at Thunder Bay shops; online orders are only available for shipping to Canadian addresses.