The annual Alone for Christmas dinner, which rotates among Platteville churches, features turkey, potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, fruit and Jell-O salads, and desserts.
At every table can be found brown and white mints, made for many years by Fern Reinstein of JAS Candies in Platteville.
“Every year they ask us,” she said. “I think they’re afraid we’re going to say no. Of course we wouldn’t.”
She adds, however, that JAS Candies — named for their children, Joanna, Adam and Suzanne — is as much the work of her husband, Jesse, a retired UW–Platteville chemistry professor, as her.
“I don’t do this by myself,” she said. “He does more than I do.
“It keeps you busy, it keeps you out of trouble, and everybody loves you because you make candy.”
Besides Alone for Christmas, the Reinsteins provide candies for weddings and other events.
“You do what people want, and you do as many as they want,” she said. “If somebody says, Have you made this, we’ll say, no, but we’ll try that.”
One afternoon at the Reinsteins includes turtle pretzels, chocolate covered potato chips (she will also dip corn chips), a turtle apple (a Granny Smith apple with, in order of application, caramel, pecans, milk chocolate and dark chocolate sprinkles), truffles, and butternut crunch toffee — “kind of like a Heath bar, only better,” she said.
The key to Reinstein’s success seems to be the willingness to try something new, whether or not it proves successful.
“We like to try new things; it’s always fun to try something new, and then see how people react to it,” she said. “It’s just that some things people go for more than others. I’m not afraid to try something; my feelings is if you don’t like that, don’t do that again, but how will you know unless you try it?”
Reinstein started out of “boredom — unlike everybody else, I didn’t have a job; I was a stay-at-home mom, so I just started fooling around.
“We’d try things. I’d have people over, and I used them as guinea pigs, and they didn’t mind. I never thought it was going to be a business.”
The first product was lollipops, which led to their first It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time experience.
“We thought we had a winner — it was peanut butter lollipops,” she said. “And it was awful, and it smelled so bad we had to leave the house, it stank so bad.”
Reinstein has also made, upon request, chocolate-covered prunes and dipped apricots.
“We once put chili flavoring into chocolate, and it was not well-received,” she said, though she added it may have been fed to the wrong audience.”
Reinstein said she has made candies for “probably 30 years now.” She likes to bake, including cheesecake, but doesn’t sell her baking.
Some candies she makes are simple to cook, but others are not.
“Everything is steps,” she said. “All of these things you do a step, then it’s got to harden, then you score it, then you put nuts on it.”
Milk chocolate is always popular, though dark chocolate has increased in popularity, in part due to its claimed antioxidant qualities, over the past several years. She uses almonds and pecans most, but she will use other nuts upon request.
Her keys to successfully cooking chocolate: “Don’t overcook it, don’t put too much water in it, pay attention to what you’re doing.”
She has made perhaps too many different kinds of candy to keep track.
“I get a lot of recipes because I have lots of cookbooks,” she said. “Sometimes I lose track of a recipe and I never make it again, but I try to keep track of them.”
The irony of JAS Candies is that Reinstein, who has diabetes, doesn’t eat her own work.
“I don’t eat it, so it’s not like I sit around eating candy, because I’m diabetic, and my kids don’t eat candy,” she said. “I’ll sample it, but I won’t sit and eat it. I’ll give it to friends who will sample it, and they’ll tell me if it’s good or not. And they haven’t rejected us yet.
“It’s a happy business. It’s not drudge work. You’ve got something that makes people happy.”