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Caramelpalooza 2013: Judge's Recap

Ribbons, "crack balls" from Essence, Millie's rosemary caramels.
Ribbons, "crack balls" from Essence, Millie's rosemary caramels.
Katie Johnson and Diana Lustig

The fourth annual Caramelpalooza is now but a memory. It was a grand time, with more sticky sweets on display than you can imagine. My time at the event was different from most, as I was invited to judge the competition.

As the contestants were arriving and setting up their displays, the other judges and I were sequestered in an empty shop space nearby. It was an all-star cast this year, with folks from Sweet Republic, Christopher's, Julia Baker Confections, Smeeks, go lb. salt, plus contest winner Josh Rhodes.

See Also: Caramelpalooza 2013: And The Winners Are... Caramelpalooza In Photos

This wasn't my first time as a judge. At the very first Caramelpalooza, I won the guest judge contest. Back then, it was a smaller affair, easily contained by the Frances/Smeeks/Stinkweeds parking lot. And there wasn't nearly as much caramel. This year, judges had the daunting task of sampling no fewer than 20 caramel confections. It sounded manageable. Then, once I saw all 20 confections lined up on banquet tables, I realized it was a very good thing that I came hungry.

 

I have a nearly insatiable sweet tooth, but facing a row of 20 treats was more than a little daunting. I knew I had to work fast -- hopefully, fast enough that I could complete the whole thing before my stomach sent "I'm full!" signals to the brain. Also, the judges had to work independently because it would have been too tempting to discuss the merits of the caramels as we tasted and we didn't want to color each other's opinions. It was a weird sight watching the other judges as they silently, studiously scarfed down caramel after caramel.

Because there was ice cream on the table, everyone went for it first, before it could melt into a puddle of caramel crème anglaise. It generally was good ice cream (from Churn), but I had the sneaking suspicion that someone used almond extract to bump up the flavor and then added a little too much. Anything with a little salt was welcome to give the palate a little zing in between all the sweet, as long as the salt was applied judiciously. There were one or two that were like munching on a salt lick. Caramel potato chips were ingenious, even if I was hoping for a little bit more caramel on them.

About three-quarters of the way through the judging, overload was closing in. I steeled my nerves and hit the after-burners for the last few contestants. I found that a couple of candy makers tried an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. While there were good parts of these confections (anything is better than the one that almost ripped out my fillings in Caramelpalooza's first year), any shortcomings dragged down the entry overall. Moral of the story: jack of all trades, master of none.

My favorites were the ones that were novel but elegant. I need to track down more of the caramels brought by Jill McNamara of Millie's Caramels; who knew rosemary and caramel would be such a brilliant pairing? Jeff Kraus of Crêpe Bar deservedly won Best in Show with his caramel apple, which took a traditional caramel candy and paired it with a distinctly non-traditional liquid-apple-filled gel sphere (as well as an edible wrapper and Pop Rocks).

The fourth Caramelpalooza was fun. Where else can you get a contact sugar buzz? I'm crossing my fingers that my overlords at New Times will save a seat at the judges' table for me next year.

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