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Vosges Haut Chocolat owner Katrina Markoff, who scours the globe for the exotic chiles and berries that flavor her pricey, decadent truffles, is launching a not-so-haute brand of chocolates.

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The Chicago entrepreneur, who opened her first shop 13 years ago in her 20s, was at the Sweets and Snacks Expo at McCormick Place Tuesday showing off her Americana-accented Wild Ophelia line of chocolate bars that she says is aimed at "drug stores to truck stops to big-box."

In fact, the Wild Ophelia bars -- which will cost anywhere from $2.97 to $4.99, depending on the retailer -- won't even be sold in Vosges stores.

Vosges truffles are laced with ingredients like Krug champagne, aged Italian balsamic vinegar and black Hawaiian sea salt.

Wild Ophelia bars, by contrast, contain dried cherries from Michigan, chunks of Georgia peaches and beef jerky from Wyoming. Yes, kids, there is a beef jerky chocolate bar.

"A lot of times when you see 'Americana,' it's more kitsch," Markoff said. "We wanted this to feel hand-done . . . but fun, fashionable."

The bars are packaged in recycled paperboard. There are five flavors in the line: Beef Jerky, Hickory Smoked Almond, New Orleans Chili, Southern Hibiscus Peach and Sweet Cherry Pecan.

Check out the chocolates here.

Travel Trip Kentucky Bourbo.jpg I don't know what delights me more: putting boozy balls in the hands of a mixologist (see post below), or in the hands of boozy journalists.

Now before I get in hot water, let me clarify: not all journalists are boozy. Some are. Not all. But there is that reputation.

Anyhow, bourbon balls made were The Hit at the office potluck last week. Potent would be a fair description; so would aromatic. I smelled the thing from a few feet away as a co-worker walked by with one of the moist, walnut-size treats on his plate.

The man responsible: Thomas Conner, our Web guru in Features (and not, I might add, a boozy fellow. He's a tea guy.)

"Wow, had no inkling they'd be such a hit. Pour a little bourbon in anything and it'll be a hit in a newsroom ... ;-)" Thomas e-mailed me in reply to my gushing e-mail along the lines of, "OMG." (See, there again with the Alcoholics-R-Us stereotype.)

Here, then, is Thomas' recipe. If you can, let these sit so the flavors get all happy:

Crush a box of Nilla wafers, add 3 tablespoons cocoa, pinch or two cinnamon, handful of crushed nuts, 3 tablespoons Karo syrup, 8 tablespoons (OK, maybe 12) bourbon. Stir. Form balls and roll 'em in powdered sugar. Fridge.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Food Deadline Rum Balls.jpg When a top-shelf mixologist moves from the cocktail shaker to the mixing bowl, she brings the bar with her.

The proof isn't in the bottle; it's in the balls. (You know these: traditional rum balls made with crushed cookies and booze.)

The rest of us may be brave enough to change liquors or liqueurs, switching rum for whisky or grabbing that almost-empty bottle of coffee or hazelnut liqueur. That's not enough of a change for Bridget Albert.

Albert is the director of mixology for Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois and the author of Market Fresh Mixology. She makes candies the way she does cocktails. "It's the way I do everything," Albert says, interrupting herself with laughter.

When creating a new drink, she starts with the base spirit "and then builds the flavors on top of that." She crafts what she terms "spirited balls" the same way: from the bottle out.

There are similarities between the glass and the ball. "It's kind of like a little shot," she notes, "because you're not cooking this, so you do get a little kick from these cookies."

Albert has been making spirited balls, every winter, for years. Not surprisingly, given her creativity in life and behind the bar, she wasn't satisfied with making the same thing every time.

She wanted to have fun and play with flavors, but keep it simple. "I started making variations on a holiday classic, keeping the flavors I would incorporate into a cocktail when making these spirited balls. For instance, Grand Marnier - orange - goes wonderfully with ginger." Out went the vanilla wafers and in came gingersnap crumbs.

What else? "I think chocolate and peanut butter could very well be a divine marriage," Albert says, her eyes bright and her voice happy. She makes dessert cocktails with chocolate and peanut butter liqueurs, and Nutter Butters meet chocolate liqueur in her spirit balls.

Does she have a favorite? "I do," Albert says happily. "My favorite is the rum. It's super easy to make and I love coconut - and I have to tell you, living in the Midwest in December, it is cold and miserable, so any time you can mix rum with coconut, whether you're eating it or drinking it, it takes you back to the islands for just a minute." A mouthful of the tropics. "Absolutely."

What do her friends ask her to make? She gets a lot of requests for the original, because it's familiar -- but, Albert adds, "it's fun to surprise your friends. A big favorite is the Grand Marnier and ginger, because ginger is hot right now to drink, and it's seen as something healthy, so when you can throw it in a cookie - boy, it's a natural hit."

Feel free to be playful when you make these. Albert is. She uses bar tools in the kitchen: a big plastic (easy to clean) muddler for mashing the mixture and a bar spoon for measuring. Don't have a bar spoon? Not a problem. Use a tablespoon instead. Albert's balls aren't only spirited. They're adaptable. Proof -- of a different kind -- is in the recipes that follow.

If you're not already sick of Halloween candy -- make that, if you're sick of that waxy, pedestrian, drugstore stuff filled with stabilizers and subpar ingredients -- check out today's story and recipes from Anita Chu's Field Guide to Candy. Better yet, check out the book.

I've been toting around the pocket-sized guide for weeks now like my 4-year-old does her nubby, floppy bear. There were only so many recipes I needed to test for the sake of the story, but now that that's in the can (and I'm off my sugar high), I can scratch my itch for Chu's version of Almond Joys, one of the world's greatest candy bars.

Chow's take on the DIY Halloween candy story, meanwhile, also tackles the Almond Joy as well as the three other big guns in the candy world: Twix, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers. At a glance, Chu's recipe appears more doable. But then, Chow gets points for its printable wrappers and super cool cross-sections of the chocolate bars (which reminds us of how much we love looking at cross-sections of food).

Happy homemade Halloween.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

NEW ORLEANS -- Some foodstuffs come with stories that are as nourishing as a meal. In this economy, tales of unanticipated success are particularly welcome.

Twenty years ago, Loretta Harrison was a medical librarian at Louisiana State University. Then, she learned that Jazzfest needed someone to make New Orleans' most famous candy, pralines. Harrison made a few batches from a family recipe -- and cooked a new life for herself.

In two days at the festival, Harrison and her pralines pulled far more than she was earning in the university library. She shelved the bookish life and opened Loretta's Authentic Pralines, 2101 N. Rampart. When the store's door opened, Harrison became the first black woman to have her own candy company in New Orleans. lorettaspralines_2056_0.gif

Harrison's a born sharer. Come into her store and choose your fill of pralines, cookies and cake, and she's likely to give you the one thing you missed ... just to try. That's kitchen wisdom for you: Sit, rest, eat. People do, and return to do so again and again.

You can get Harrison's well-gotten goods in NoLa or online. If she has her way, before much more time has passed, she'll be on TV and you'll be able to buy her food from a national network.

Harrison worked hard to make her pralines a success story, and she doesn't divulge her recipe. She is, however, happy to provide an insight into what makes a good praline: butter - real butter - and love.

We're not big caramel fans. If we're in a sweet snack mode, we usually turn to chocolate first.

But there are exactly two caramels out there that one should always save stomach space for: Katherine Anne Confections and Das Caramelini.

We first met Katherine Duncan and her little pillows of goodness back in 2006, when she was slinging Potbelly sandwiches while trying to make a go of the confections business. (She's gone and done it -- her products are in Whole Foods, among other places.)

This week at the All Candy Expo, we met Katie Das (below) and her husband, Dhruba, of Das Foods.

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For a decade, the Ukraine native toiled as a food scientist for Kraft and Wrigley before breaking out on her own in 2006. She had been inspired while on a trip to France with her husband; they fell in love with salted caramels given to them at a bed-and-breakfast and the inn's owner shared her recipe, which Das of course couldn't help tweaking.

Funny the career shift -- developing snacks, salad dressings and other foods that require all sorts of funky stabilizers and multisyllabic ingredients you've never heard of, to making caramels made with real butter, real sugar and real cream from local farmers.

It seems the world couldn't get enough of salted caramels last year. And while Das certainly isn't dismissive of trends -- she was at the show to introduce a line of lollipops, including a maple-bacon number -- she says striving for the highest quality trumps the flavor du jour. And that's pretty sweet.

Das caramels are sold at Sam's Wine and Spirits, Provenance, City Olive, the Pleasure Chest (really!) and Chicago's Downtown Farmstand.

We were expecting the creator of Crackheads candy to be some goofball from California in his 40s, wearing a rumpled "Legalize Weed" t-shirt that made him look 23 ... or something like that.

We weren't expecting John Osmanski.

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Osmanski, 28, is the earnest if a tad talkative mastermind behind Crackheads. We chatted with him today at the All Candy Expo at McCormick Place, where he was showing off his latest product, Crackheads2.

Crackheads are chocolate-covered espresso beans. Crackheads2 are Crackheads with added caffeine. And for the record, Osmanski is not making light of drug abuse.

He says the name of the candy comes from a term he used while a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering to refer to his parents, professors, friends and anyone else around him who drank coffee incessantly. They were ridiculously helpless when they didn't get their daily caffeine fix -- crackheads.

In the beginning (and by that, we're talking 2007) he made batches of the candy by hand using a double boiler. The business has grown quickly and considerably since then.

Osmanski, who is now in law school part-time, has caught some flack for the name -- angry e-mails mostly. He responds with a form lettter.

"We're not trying to make fun of any drug usage," he says. "We're poking fun at people drinking coffee all the time."

So you know: The candy is sold under the less offensive name, Jitterbeans, depending on the store.

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Greetings from Candyland!

Hot on the heels of the massive National Restaurant Association show at McCormick Place is the smaller but eminently sweeter All Candy Expo, which opened today and ends Thursday.

Stay tuned for what we found (besides this gentleman who calls himself "Reinhold") as we went sniffing for the new, the funky and the fabulous in confectionery. Hint: coconut, ginger, salty/sweet, organic, savory.

Last chance to get your hands on Hugh Jackman's Tim Tams....

Now, don't get all flustered. Let us clarify. Tim Tams are the favorite cookie of the hunky Australian actor, who cleverly hawked them, and his movie, "Australia," last fall. Pepperidge Farm agreed to make the chocolate treats exclusively for Target, but only through March.

A Tim Tam, according to Wikipedia: "Two layers of chocolate malted biscuit, separated by a light chocolate cream filling, and coated in a thin layer of textured chocolate." Sounds kind of like an all-chocolate Kit Kat, which can only be good.

Now comes word that there is a single case of Tim Tams left, autographed by Jackman and up for auction on eBay. Bidding (which hovered today around $237) ends Thursday.

The whole promotion is a bit silly, but people's love for Tim Tams apparently isn't. Here's singer Natalie Imbruglia demonstrating how to do a Tim Tam Slam (biting off the ends to make an edible straw).


All this got us thinking about people's candy bar loyalties.

We don't need Jackman to get us all excited about candy bars. Our recent favorite (and believe us, we discuss these things) is the Take Five bar -- chocolate, pretzels, peanut butter, caramel. Don't know how this has escaped our radar for so long, but it's scarily good.

As candy bars go, what's your fave?

Another Peeps alert

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Naha, 500 N. Clark, is really getting into the Easter spirit.

Through Sunday, pastry chef Craig Harzewski will whip up homemade Peeps as a free treat for diners. The diminutive treats (about the size of a quarter, a press release says) are hand-shaped from fresh marshmallow and sprinkled with yellow sugar. The eyes are dots of coffee extract.

Harzewski made them just for kicks for chef/owner Carrie Nahabedian and her family. The Nahabedians got all excited and before you know it, fluffy little chicks were multiplying like ... bunnies.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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