Taste: Forever Young’s
There is a protocol for buying Easter goodies from Young’s Candies, a 109-year-old shop at 2809 Girard Avenue, in Brewerytown. You must order after St. Patrick’s Day and before Palm Sunday (this year, April 9th). You must order in person or by phone. You must know the specific names of the items you seek — there’s a big difference between a milk chocolate bunny buggy and a large bunny basket, and there’s no catalog (and certainly no website) with photos or descriptions. You must know the date you will pick up the order. You must come in on that date, be prepared to stand in line, and pay in cash.
There’s no off-street parking. There’s no delivery, no shipping. But most of all, there’s no better place to go for chocolate-covered marshmallow ducks, solid milk chocolate rabbits formed in pre-Depression-era molds, love-’em-or-not black walnut eggs, and the best-selling coconut cream eggs, each icing-scripted with the recipient’s name.
Owners Harry and Jane Young have been working in their store for most of their lives. The couple — he inherited the business from his father, who inherited it from his father — met there when Jane came in for a summer job; she explains that she “never left.” Jane was 16 at the time. Harry was 19. She’s now 74. Harry is 77.
Brewerytown has changed a great deal since Harry Young first came to work for his dad. Gone are the custom dress boutiques and florists and card shops and, for that matter, breweries. Young’s is the sole holdover from the days when buggies used to drive down Girard to the river. Harry recalls swimming in the Schuylkill as a child, and coming back to the shop for the homemade ice cream it used to sell.
The shop’s tall display windows are original, as are the black-and-white-tiled floors, the pressed tin ceiling, the gleaming wooden cases, the tall glass candy jars atop the cases, and even the old brass National cash register, which has been stuck on the same $3 sale for too many years to count.
Young’s is known for its old-fashioned sweets, all of which Harry makes in the spotless and low-tech kitchen beyond the retail space. His tasks there are familiar, but labor-intensive. In fall, he hand-dips Jonathan apples from Highland Orchards in Chester County. (“I charge 95 cents for those,” he says.) In winter, he uses antique molds to make red and green hard-candy clear toys in the shapes of fire engines, three-masted sailing ships, Father Christmas, cats, dogs, stags, does, trains and horses. The New Year means dark-chocolate-covered buttercreams in heart boxes, Irish potatoes and candy snakes, molded chocolate footballs (when the Eagles are winning), and then the Easter deluge.
“We’ll be working, say, from Paddy’s Day through Easter until about midnight every day, including Sundays,” says Harry. “We’ll go through 5,000 pounds of chocolate.”
The holiday’s top sellers are the milk- and dark-chocolate-coated coconut cream eggs, available in half-, one- and two-pound sizes, with prices ranging from $5 to $19. By Easter Sunday, Young’s will have sold more than 7,000 coconut cream eggs. Next in the filled-egg category is buttercream, then peanut butter, strawberry, black walnut, and fruit and nut. That last is a fondant with glazed fruit, walnuts and pecans. “We make less and less of those each year,” says Harry. “The ones that come in for ’em, I think they’re all in their 70s or older.”
Young’s used to do a three-pound egg, but Harry phased it out. “A lot of people think bigger is better,” he says. “But you’ve gotta watch your ratio of center to chocolate. When you make the big one, the three-pounder, you have so much center with less chocolate covering the outer surface. You might as well open a jar of peanut butter and get a knife and lick it off.”
Other Easter traditions include chocolates cast in molds that are copies of pre-1930s forms. There’s Dapper Dan (a bunny in a tux and high hat), a foot-tall rabbit toting an egg-filled basket, ducks in bow ties, bunnies pulling carts, bunnies pushing baby buggies, laughing bunnies, and Pistol Pete, a 60-plus-year-old cowboy packing double heat. “He’s been a favorite through the years,” says Harry. “People like him. But his head wants to come off all the time.”
For these, and for all his chocolates — for all his candy, in fact — Harry uses his own recipes. Three tried-and-true cocoas go into his chocolate. (He’s not spilling which beans.) Each of the 19 flavors that make up Young’s “hard mix” candy is blended and poured by hand, right down to the last black walnut chip and sassafras stick. His fondants are made from scratch, in an industry trending toward freeze-dried. He molds each candy center — orange cream, mint cream, coconut cream — and each marshmallow himself, using cornstarch forms stamped out with oak-mounted plaster molds, letting them set, sending them through the chocolate enrober.
Harry shows no signs of slowing, but allows that he’s not looking forward to Easter 2008: “It’s early,” he complains. “March 23rd. There’s only so many hours in the day, and there’s quite a lot of stuff to be made.”
Young’s Candies, 2809 West Girard Avenue; 215-765-2012.