Fat Cat Fudge
BY JILL LIGHTNER
PHOTO BY LARA FERRONI
There are some foods where the reality rarely measures up to the potential. This is especially, sadly, true with comfort food. It’s easier to find a bad biscuit than a great one, and even mashed potatoes are leaden as often as they are creamy. Fudge is one of these problematic comforts. In its ideal form, it’s meant to combine the texture of a rich caramel with the instantly melting delight of body-temperature chocolate. The word “toothsome” might have been invented to describe a perfect bite of fudge.
Fudge is universally available in tourist destinations, its oily sheen gleaming under the bright spotlights of artificially old fashioned sweet shops. It’s also still commonly found in holiday candy dishes, along with newer fads like peppermint bark. Here, it’s likely to be on the dry side, a little stale, made with sweetened condensed milk and chocolate that has too much vegetable fat and not enough cocoa butter. This is a shame, because fudge can be great, and unlike most confections, it’s even more American than apple pie. Where a modern salted caramel is both urban and sophisticated, a placid square of fudge is more like great-grandma, welcoming you on the porch with a hug.
As with many recipes, it’s tough to sort out fudge’s myth from historical reality, although it’s believed to be both recent and an American original. The earliest printed recipe dates from 1888, in a letter from one Vassar student to another. Searching through the oldest cookbooks in a private collection, the earliest versions spotted are in a 1920s Kansas church cookbook (This book includes an advertisement for ice delivery: “Thrifty families use ICE.” Let us take a moment to appreciate our modern appliances.). These recipes are quite simple, if physically demanding—butter, cream, sugar, vanilla and perhaps chocolate—cooked on the stove to the soft ball stage, cooled, and beaten by hand with a wooden spoon for 15 minutes. Making fudge this way regularly would practically guarantee forearms the size of Popeye’s.
The recipe that Kristine Vannoy started Fat Cat Fudge with was found in a family recipe book. In 2003, she had recently separated from her husband, and money was tight, so it was homemade Christmas gifts or none at all. Something about her aunt’s three-generations-old rocky road fudge recipe struck the right note: luxurious, homey and still affordable. The fudge was a hit, and she kept making it (her kids even had fudge stands, instead of selling lemonade), improving the quality of chocolate while maintaining the same ultra-creamy consistency. The family legacy and homemade beginnings of her current company fit in nicely with fudge—as she says, fudge is “everyman’s chocolate.”
In 2005, she and her sister were shopping at the Edmonds Saturday Market and dropped into Nama’s Candy Store (102 1/2 Fifth Ave, Edmonds), which was offering samples of fudge that morning. After a nibble, the sisters politely made their opinion known: the product didn’t measure up. Turns out that Nama’s regretfully agreed with them, saying that their original supplier had retired, and that they’d been looking for the right replacement. “You need Kris’s fudge!” piped up her sister. Even though Kristine had never owned her own business, and had no idea how to turn small homemade batches of her candy into a commercial product, she brought in a few samples of her rocky road. It was declared a winner, provided that she could create the same product while meeting the licensing requirements.
Well, why not? As Kristine says, “A lot of women reinvent themselves after a divorce.” She connected with the Women’s Entrepreneurial Network (www.wen-usa.com) and the International District’s Community Capital Development (www.seattleccd.com), where she was able to meet inspiring small business owners for mentoring (she calls out Jody of Cupcake Royale) as well as get the concrete skills needed for writing a business plan (crediting Tiffany McVeety, who now works with the International Institute of Economic Gardening). She figured out where to rent kitchen space (Montlake Terrace, shared with the woman behind Confectionately Yours toffee), upped the quantity of her recipe (one batch now makes 9 pounds of candy), figured out an affordable air-tight package (a simple clamshell) and came up with the company name (more on her fuzzy inspiration later). With all systems go, Nama’s made good on their offer, and became Fat Cat Fudge’s first customer.
Along with rocky road, she developed a deeply old-fashioned walnut recipe (she says it’s the definite favorite of the older generation) and a plain chocolate (the company’s bestseller). While quite happy with the original recipe, there are constant behind-the-scenes developments. Her chocolate supplier changed to artificial vanilla lately; she rejects this switch and has been searching for the right replacement. There’s an ongoing project aimed at creating her own all-natural marshmallow crème since even preservative-free varieties use artificial vanilla, and there are long-term plans to introduce a peanut butter chocolate variety. There’s also a new quarter-pound package, recently added to the original half-pound size.
The Ballinger Thriftway was her first grocery store customer, but it was Metropolitan Market that led to a sweet non-business development. Kristine was at their Uptown location for a meeting with the buyer, Andrew Woodcock. They were in the bakery department with the fudge, where Darryl Vannoy was standing behind the pastry case. Darryl was new, recently hired to replace Andrew as buyer. As Kristine tells it, Darryl’s first thoughts from behind the counter were “she’s so beautiful,” and “what’s she standing on?” (Kristine is six feet tall.) He immediately came over to meet her—with her thinking “who is this guy?” (she had no idea Andrew was leaving) and “why is he standing so close?” They were married a week shy of the first anniversary of their first date.
Romance in the bakery department seems par for the course when you talk to Kristine, whose calmly positive outlook comes through in every sentence. Her sentences weave rocky road together with her desire to model for her kids “that people can design what they want to do with their life;” walnut fudge goes hand-in-hand with “there’s something to be said for what comes from the generation before us.” Her praise for Community Capital Development leads straight to tales of her friendship with 95-year-old banker Mildred “Polly” Gorrie, Washington’s first female founder of a savings-and-loan—they like to go out for burgers. Along with her mention of thyroid cancer (Kristine’s message to everyone: “check your neck!”), is a firm statement: “I strongly believe that everything we need to be successful is right in front of us.”
This all adds up to the inspiration behind the name, Fat Cat Fudge. Kristine is, emphatically and forevermore, a “cat person,” calling out that combination of independence and affection so beloved to all cat lovers. Her own beloved fat cat is a massive Maine Coon named Trapper, and her idea of being a “fat cat” is about her wealth of friends and family, and the privilege of sharing her lovingly-made product with her community. One bite, and you will understand that the privilege is all yours. This fudge lives up to its sweet promise of luxurious—and yes, toothsome—comfort.
Jill Lightner is the editor of Edible Seattle. Richard Scarry’s Funniest Storybook Ever, in which babysitters overflow a house with homemade fudge, was a formative part of her childhood.
Fat Cat Fudge is available from Amazon Fresh, Central Market, Ken’s Market, La Buona Tavola, Metropolitan Market, Nama’s Candy Store, Snohomish Sweets and Treats, Thriftway (Ballinger Village, Magnolia, Renton, Vashon Island and West Seattle) and Town and Country Markets. You’ll find Kristine doing frequent tastings around town; check www.fatcatfudge.com for a complete schedule.