If you happen to find yourself in Buffalo for the holidays this year (or have a Buffalonian coming to you), you may well take a bite of something surprisingly crunchy and yet perfectly airy: sponge candy.
My husband grew up in Buffalo, and I first experienced sponge candy during the first holiday season we spent together. His parents gifted my parents a box of it. “A Buffalo specialty!” they said.
I opened the box to find a row of what looked like typical chocolates, maybe caramels. If I had put too much thought into untangling the word “sponge” in “sponge candy,” I would have imagined that it was referring to, for lack of a better descriptor, a wet sponge. Maybe it would be marshmallow filled and therefore spongey. However, that’s not what I got.
What is sponge candy?
Sponge candy is described by Watson’s, one of the Buffalo companies famous for making it, as “crispy, tender chunks of caramelized spun sugar drenched in our wonderfully creamy chocolate.”
This might be sacrilege, but to a non-Buffalonian like myself, the thing I would compare the interior consistency to the most is a meringue cookie. In flavor, it has a bit of a toffee essence, but without the butter that gives toffee its heft. Sponge candy is hard, crumbly, and airy, not unlike a dry sponge.
How is sponge candy made?
A 2015 news segment from Buffalo’s News 4 gives a fascinating glimpse into how sponge candy is made. Bob Wachowski, the sponge candy maker for Fowler’s chocolates in Buffalo, walked reporter Lauren Hall through the process. People at Fowler’s call him “Sponge Bob.”
The candy is made with corn syrup, sugar, and water. The video shows Sponge Bob grabbing globs of corn syrup with wet hands and throwing them, like balls of magic, into a copper bowl of water. The process looks oddly soothing. Then sugar is added and it’s over to the stove. There, it’s heated for about an hour and, once it’s started to melt, gelatin is added for texture.
The stirring of this mixture happens in the copper bowl and over an open flame. Eventually, baking soda is added, which makes it rise and turn yellow. At that point it looks more like cake batter than liquid candy. Then it’s transferred, in one big spongy blob, into another container to cool. It hardens overnight, and then it’s sliced into squares with a saw, which are covered in chocolate on a conveyer belt.
According to the video, which was produced in 2015, Fowler’s makes about 850 pounds of sponge candy a day, which is the equivalent of 10 batches.
Is sponge candy just a Buffalo thing?
It seems sponge candy, specifically, is a Buffalo thing, so much so that its tastes aren’t often appreciated outside of the region.
“People outside the area just don’t like it,” Sam Mancuso, a consultant told Buffalo Spree in 2012. “If you’ve ever pushed sponge candy on nonnative houseguests or brought some along as a hostess gift when visiting out-of-town friends, you may have witnessed tepid reactions that make you inclined to agree. Even Pittsburgh, as close as it is, can’t sell it; it’s absolutely a regional taste.”
A similar candy exists elsewhere and by many names It’s called honeycomb candy; cinder toffee; fairy food. But honeycomb is made with honey, rather than the corn syrup that sponge candy uses, and it has a different consistency than sponge candy.
As Stefanelli’s Candies explains, “Whereas sponge candy has a fine, sponge-like texture full of tiny air bubbles, the air pockets of honeycomb candy are larger and have a more defined shape to them. When broken apart, honeycomb candy—which looks smooth and solid at first glance—consists of large bubbles that form a design similar to honeycombs found in beehives.”
According to Stepout Buffalo, there are more than a dozen shops in Buffalo that make the confection. Buffalo has even created a holiday around sponge candy, National Sponge Candy Day, which was dedicated by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in 2015. But even with its own day set aside for celebration, locals know, Christmas is sponge candy season.