People we love: QUIN candy wizard Jami Curl

Jami Curl’s candies are like bite-size time machines. One lick of a strawberry lollipop or taste of a cherry cola gumdrop will take you back to childhood and the days of walking the candy aisle with wonder. Only this time around, these candies and caramels—made with nothing fake inside—live up to your memories. Actually, they are probably far better than you remember.

Jami’s attention to detail, talent, and creativity are just a few reasons we couldn’t wait to partner with her notable Portland-based candy company, QUIN, to make Osmanthus & Blackberry Crackle ice cream. Her commitment to building flavor with natural ingredients is another. Jami shares her candy-making tricks in new cookbook, Candy is Magic—more than 200 intimidation-free recipes for candies, caramels, gumdrops, lollipops and other confections.

We caught up with the candy wizard to talk inspiration, guilty pleasures, and how to build candy-making confidence.

When did your obsession with candy start?

I am a lifelong lover of sweets, and I grew up surrounded by family members very devoted to treats—ice cream, candy, cookies, cake. I didn’t grow up in an environment where sugary snacks were reserved only for celebrations that came up a few times a year. I never had to scarf down candy so that I wouldn’t be caught eating it. I credit my mom and her relaxed outlook on treats for my true affinity for candy today—because none of it was forbidden, I didn’t have to sneak treats. And not sneaking treats meant I had time to think about what I was eating. And it’s that thinking—especially about candy—that today makes me take candy as seriously as I do.

But there’s another sort of obsession, which is the candy making obsession, which is quite different than the candy eating obsession. I’m asked all the time about the way we make candy at QUIN (handcrafted, attention to flavor, premium ingredients)—and for me that’s not the story here because I never made a conscious decision to make candy the way that we do. It’s simply that it’d never cross my mind to make candy any other way. Turning real food into great tasting candy—that’s my real obsession, and the seeds were planted when I was a child simply enjoying candy.

You have a talent for taking nostalgic candies we love—starbursts, gumdrops, lollipops—and re-envisioning them in a way that makes them better than we remember. When you want to improve upon a classic, and make it uniquely QUIN, where do you start?

Thank you! All of our recipes begin with flavor and my goal of achieving flavor with natural ingredients. Once I have an idea for a flavor and its supporting ingredients in my head, it’s a pretty tough thing to shake. I will think and think on something—imagining the result in my head, deciding on texture (bouncy or smooth? Hard crack or buttery shatter?) for weeks until I’m ready to either commit the idea to paper and/or get in the kitchen and start working. I have a well-thought-out, start-to-finish plan in my head for a candy prior to ever experimenting with the how. I do that with intention because I have found that worrying about the how at the start of a recipe or project is a sure way to kill the project before it’s been fully realized. So, I put the how away for a while and just let myself dream.

Is there a candy that you make that’s near and dear to you? And/or one you just can’t resist eating?

I do eat candy every day because I’m constantly tasting stuff for work, but the candy I reach for the most—the one that I’ll get up from my desk and go seek out—is something we call a Dreams Come Chew. They’re beautiful, brightly colored candies. One-inch squares wrapped in clear cellophane in a variety of fruit flavors. Cherry, strawberry, pineapple-coconut, lime—all made with minimal (and natural) ingredients. Dreams Come Chew are super smooth, a little chewy, a little soft—and sort of melt in your mouth as you’re eating them.

What about a guilty pleasure candy … that you’re willing to share? 

I’m not sure if there’s a particular candy that’s a guilty pleasure. I think the actual guilty pleasure is the sheer amount of candy that I’m able to eat. I seem to possess a talent for eating very large amounts of treats, sweets, candy, etc. without it making me feel ill or funny or off.

That said, any time/every time I see them I will always buy a box of Hot Tamales. I love that fake spicy cinnamon flavor! (GROSS and GUILTY).

What made you want to work with Jeni’s to collaborate on an ice cream flavor?

I’m from Ohio and went to school at Ohio University in Athens. I have been eating (and loving) Jeni’s ice cream from the start. As I traveled/moved and experienced other “artisan” ice creams, I would continually come back to Jeni’s as my point of reference/guide. There’s simply no other ice cream like it, anywhere. QUIN has had multiple requests for ice cream collaborations and I have turned down each one because the quality could never match what’s being done at Jeni’s. The fact that we did a flavor together is sort of a professional and personal dream come true and has been on my goal list (even above ‘Meet Oprah’) for as long as I’ve had a goal list.

What can you tell us about the (delicious!) blackberry candies we use to make Osmanthus & Blackberry Crackle?

At QUIN we love to use real fruit in our candy. The blackberry crackle candy is no different. We source blackberries from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and bring them into our factory to be roasted (enhances flavor, removes water), pureed, and magicked into candy. We leave the seeds and skins in the candy so the experience is almost like eating the fruit itself. We upped the tanginess of the candy a little bit so that it’d stand up in the ice cream—and I think the blackberry flavor combined with that tang is just the perfect thing when combined with the creamy, fruity/floral osmanthus ice cream.

You just released a gorgeous new cookbook, Candy is Magic. Can you tell us a little about why you wanted to publish a book and what you want readers to learn from it?

Most people I talk to are terrified of making candy OR think candy is the enemy because it contains ingredients that are terrible for you (all the artificial, fake junk). The book is a tool for dispelling those myths. Of course, simply making and selling top quality candy could also dispel those myths, but I honestly don’t think that’s enough to really get the message out. The book allows people to see candy how I see candy—through my eyes and brain rather than through their own. I don’t have a lot of limits when it comes to candy and imagination, and it’s this sort of “limitless” approach that is apparent on every page of the book—that limitlessness is what I hope people come away from the book embracing.

For those of us who are intimidated by candy making, what’s the best place to start in your book?

Lollipops and hard candy are real confidence boosters. If you have a working thermometer and follow the instructions in the book you can make a lollipop. My first lollipop making experience was the single thing that gave me the confidence I needed to see that I could make candy (and sell it!) There’s really nothing like seeing something transform from a hot, liquid-y syrup into a candy that stands up on a stick!

Ready to give candy making a go? Jami shares her recipe for Coconut + Toasted Pecan + Chocolate Caramels on the blog.