Every autumn since 1919, employees of family-run Dan's Homemade Candies are up to their elbows in caramel they dip apples into 200-degree copper kettles full of the sticky goo.
It's one of their signature items, of which they produce 10 to 13 loads of apples a day, with each load producing between 350 and 400 taffy apples.
Every apple—whether it's destined to be peppered with granulated salted nuts, served plain or decked in orange to resemble a pumpkin—is hand-dipped. In an average year, Dan's sells 100,000-plus small, medium and large taffy apples from its locations at 229 E. Cass St. and 1103 Plainfield Road in Joliet.
The small apples are dipped first to get a nice coating. As the caramel cools, they move to the medium-sized ones and then finally, the large apples. The longer the batch cools, the thinker the coating, said Kelly Bostjancic, a member of the Nelson family, which bought the store and its recipes in 1991.
And while the term "taffy apple" is as much a part of Americana as scarecrows and trick-or-treaters, said Bostjancic, it's really caramel that coats the apple. The special recipe for Dan's caramel remains a family secret; if you see a recipe on Facebook, it's bogus, she said.
The Secret's in the Apples
However, Bostajancic did share some tidbits about the key ingredient in the store's top autumn seller. It's the apples, she said. "We never buy apples from a store because they have wax on them.
"We use only Jonathon apples," she said. "We get them at the beginning of the season from Southern Illinois and later in the season (from orchards) in Michigan."
It was tough this year, she added, becuase so many apple trees were were affected by the draught. "We got them from an orchard way north in Michigan."
Why Jonathan apples? There are two reasons: 1) They're sturdy. They don't get mushy when dipped in the hot caramel; 2) They have a thick skin and a firm texture that stands up to the steamy temperature of the caramel.