IN OUR convenience-centered world where everything from soup to nuts can be purchased practically pre-digested, it's nice to know there are people out there who still know the meaning of the word homemade.
Personally, I marvel at anyone who makes time to bake from a mix, much less from scratch. So it was quite a surprise to visit Candyland Crafts, where Diane and Frank Stephan promise that baking is as easy as pie. To help you along, they carry everything from pans -- in dozens of shapes like Barbie and Big Bird -- to pansies, made from icing and perfect for topping your finished masterpiece.
Baking supplies are only half of what Candyland Crafts has to offer. If you think it might be fun to make and decorate your own chocolates, no doubt you'll find what you need in this large Somerville store dedicated to dazzling your family and friends with personalized desserts. For instance, there are more than 2,000 chocolate molds in stock ($2.50 per sheet). The unexpected shapes, like scissors for seamstresses, dentures for dentists and manicure sets, hair dryers and rollers for your favorite stylist can be found along with the more traditional ballerinas and baby booties. This time of year, as you might imagine, there also are plenty of wreaths, candy canes, snowmen, Christmas trees, Santas and champagne bottles.
After you've chosen your molds, brighten them up with sprinkles, glitter, tiny snowflakes -- there are literally thousands of decorating ideas at Candyland Crafts. Lollipops are fun, and one hot idea this season, says Diane Stephan, is replacing sticks with pretzel rods. Then there are gingerbread houses and villages you build from the ground up: walls, doors, chimneys, roofs -- even the residents are here.
Baking cakes and making candy can get intricate, and there are entire aisles at this store dedicated to pans, tools, cookie cutters, icings, edible toppings, flavors, candles and ornaments. You can paint a personalized message on cakes, place little hockey players or Rugrats on cupcakes or sprinkle confetti on your chocolate champagne bottles.
Naturally flavored oils ($1.30 per bottle) like vanilla butternut, banana cream and piņa colada can turn things interesting. Set out place cards made of chocolate or place your chocolates inside one of 100 piņatas hanging from Candyland Craft's ceiling.
Shape your cookies into teapots and T-Rexs or diamonds and donkeys or top special occasion cakes with cheerleaders, castles or clowns. There are so many ways to personalize your treats, it should incite even the most timid to load up the shopping cart and get out the mixing bowl. If you can't come up with an idea, the library of cookbooks and magazines should provoke some thought.
''This is a happy business," says Diane Stephan. "People come in for celebrations and happy times." She adds that working around chocolate every day isn't all bad. She's been making candy since 1980, when she got her first job as a teenager in a candy shop in Whitehouse Station.
The next year, she met Frank Stephan on a blind date -- on April Fool's Day, no less. They married, opened their first store in Flemington, then a second at the current site in Somerville. Eventually, they closed the shop in Flemington, expanded Somerville and since have become a popular site for children's birthday parties in which tykes make and decorate lollipops and for classes in baking and candy making.
''You can save 50 percent if you make your own candy or cakes once you own the supplies," says Diane Stephan. At Candyland Crafts, there are compound and tempered chocolates from Mercken's Chocolate Co., of Mansfield, Mass., and Wilbur Chocolates from Litiz, Pa. A 1-pound bag costs $3.25, 5-pound bags are $3 per pound and if you buy 10 pounds, it goes down to $2.60 per pound. The chocolate also is fun to look at: It comes regular or in all the colors of the rainbow.
If you prefer, the Stephans will bake you any cake you desire or make candies for your special occasion with advance orders. Two of their more interesting requests were for a 3-dimensional globe and a 4-foot-high champagne bottle cake, but wedding cakes are a favorite, as are character cakes, like Blue's Clue's and Scooby- Doo.
To really top things off, there's a candle section, where you can find the usual sparklers and trick candles, but also Harley Davidson emblem candles, beer bottle candles and (my own personal favorite) the couch potato candle set, consisting of a six- pack, a bag of chips and, naturally, a remote.
It's all in good fun, and the thought of making something special for someone you care about is what it's all about at Candyland. 'Tis the season, so you might want to make the people on your gift list really take notice with festively decorated chocolate lollipops tied to the top of your packages. Or, how about white chocolate dreidles painted with traditional symbols for each place setting at your table?
As for the Stephans, it's no surprise that they bring edible gifts along when they visit family and friends.
''The family always gets the most extravagant things we do," says Frank Stephan. "They always look forward to Aunt Dee's (Diane's) cakes for birthdays." They'll be visiting his family in Frenchtown this Christmas, and along with chocolate name tags for everyone at the dinner table, everyone will receive a big box of their favorite kinds of chocolates.
If you're not lucky enough to be invited to the Stephan household on Christmas, you might want to stop by Candyland Crafts and pick up the ingredients for your own homemade treats. It's as good a way as any to show some love -- from scratch.
"Taste of New Jersey" appears every other week in Savor. Please send news of your favorite finds with your name and telephone numbers to Savor, "Taste of New Jersey," The Star-Ledger, 1 Star- Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102. All submissions become the property of The Star-Ledger and will not be returned; submissions may be edited and may be published or otherwise reused in any medium.
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