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10 Questions for Jennifer Bell

by: COURTESY OF LINDSAY BELL, 
Jennifer Bell, owner of Indulge Caramels, has candy displays at Made in Oregon stores and several other outlets in the Northwest.

Jennifer Bell of Hillsboro started making caramel six years ago at Christmastime. The next year, family members put in their orders for more, and Bell figured she could be on to something.

So, Bell started Indulge Caramels, and three years later she has displays at Made in Oregon stores and several other outlets in the Northwest. Not bad for a woman who got a science degree from Oregon State University in 2003.

'I'm not as old as many people think candy makers should be,' says Bell, a 30-something who also works at a Beaverton marketing company. 'Most people picture a nice, plump grandmother, and they're off just a bit with me.'

Bell recently discussed candy making with the Tribune:

Tribune: How do you make caramel?

Bell: The general idea is you mix up a bunch of sugars and boil, bring to a certain temperature, add a bunch of dairy products, bring to a certain temperature, and you're done. Oh, and stir a lot . . . The biggest key is patience, and using high-quality ingredients. Don't be afraid of the fat, use a good cream and lots of butter.

Tribune: You're known for your flavors - cinnamon toast and apple being the first ones, and also cayenne, sea salt, coconut, almond, amaretto, chocolate and some seasonal ones like passion fruit - how do you mix them in?

Bell: Not many people do as many flavors as I do. You measure it out - depends on the flavor you want; you don't add as much cayenne as you do chocolate (dipped) or coconut or apple.

Tribune: Why cayenne?

Bell: There are a number of companies that make chipotle caramel. Ours is smokier, more straightforward. We have a lot of flavors, because I got bored making just one.

Tribune: How do you get the right taste?

Bell: There was a lot of trial and error. Candy is really temperamental. You have to get just the right ingredient, just the right temperature, caramel in particular because it's a couple stages of cooking. You have to be careful. Some batches were just liquid puddles, others glass hard (early on) . . . I have a hard time teaching others to cook; in fact, no one else cooks for me, I do it all.

Tribune: There's trial and error, which means lots of errors?

Bell: I taste every batch, to make sure it tastes the way I want it to. I know when it's developed properly; if it's not, it goes in the garbage. But, if I screw up a batch of coconut, (my husband Lindsay's) all for having the whole thing.

Tribune: You aren't revealing any secrets?

Bell: It's surprising to me how competitive the candy making industry is. A lot of candy makers approach me in person or over the Web asking me, 'What's the secret to your recipe, I want to compare it to mine?' I say, 'That's why it's a secret' . . . There are definitely secrets, about methodology, brand of ingredients - you have to be careful about what you buy.

Tribune: What's your next flavor?

Bell: I've experimented a bit, and (an orange caramel) is about to be released. The rest are secret.

Tribune: Advice for amateur candy makers?

Bell: I started with a candy making book, took a couple recipes and put them together. You really can't go wrong with candy. It depends on what your likes are. Be patient and willing to experiment.

Tribune: What about advice about operating a business out of your home, your garage?

Bell: It's surprising how many questions I get at networking events - 'I make such and such, how do I go about doing that?' The biggest thing is to be official about it. Don't do it and then get caught not having a license. People can get hurt, and they'll shut you down pretty quickly.

Getting it set up was no small task; it took a year and a half. If I didn't have pets, I could get my own kitchen certified.

Tribune: How does one make it in the candy making business? Taste tests?

Bell: We do trade shows, and everybody says, 'Oh, I've had that before,' whether it be caramel, chocolate, jams. People want to try it, and need to try it to understand why yours might be better or different. And, what we get all the time is, 'Oh, it's going to pull out my fillings.' But, ours is not as sticky. I tried it with my grandmother first, and I wanted to be gentle on her teeth.