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Sugar Fairy: Creativity in the kitchen with Sara May

Sara May - Franklin Fountain

Apple pie, ready to serve


Chocolate pecan pie

The shared kitchen above Shane confectionary

Boxed and ready

Chocolates cool by the window after dipping

Just as the first specks of winter sleet fill a dull Tuesday morning sky, the lights flicker on above Shane Confectionary, Old City’s turn-of the-century candy counter and Philadelphia’s most regal hall of sweets. On the third floor, a woman in a white lab coat begins boxing buttercreams. One floor below, a Vulcan stove rumbles to life and two aproned women begin stirring cauldrons of sugar—the lifeblood of Shane Confectionary and its neighboring soda hall, Franklin Fountain. The two shops, run by a pair of enterprising and very whiskery brothers, Ryan and Eric Berley, offer turn-of-the-century sweetness with an increasingly local spin.

"Ninety percent of our products are house made, and we try to source locally whenever possible," says pastry chef Sara May, who prides herself on being a pie visionary, a whipper-upper of ice creams and an overseer of new vegan flavors. (See the stocking stuffer options below.) May says the sweetest thing about working in the kitchen at Shane Confectionary—aside from the smell—is the quality of the ingredients. She points to a tub of Daisy Flour, milled in nearby Annville, Penn., then taps a bin of organic, unrefined sugar. "This comes from Dutch Valley, a family company right here in Pennsylvania," she explains. "It’s wonderful to bake with because it makes everything turn golden brown."

Downstairs in the candy shop, sugar ships glisten and anthracite candy glows like black coal, ready for naughty children. May wanders along the candy cases, her fingers dancing over the glass, as she points out other confections that contain local ingredients, like nut clusters (the nuts are sourced from a local roastery) and bar chocolate from Philadelphia’s own John & Kira’s. "We take Green Meadow Farm’s thick-cut bacon," says May, devilishly, "and we dip it in locally sourced chocolate."

Candy store manager Ben Loughin points to a display of giant candy canes from Giambri’s in South Jersey. "They’re hand-pulled, so the striping goes all the way through, unlike generic candy canes," he explains, stroking his beard. "They’re made by Dave Giambri himself."

Back upstairs in the kitchen, liquid candy is ready for pouring so May can begin work on Franklin Fountain’s seasonal ice cream: Peppermint Stick. She has plans for a dairy version, made with local milk, as well as a non-dairy option. "We’re going to do a vegan holiday sundae," she calls out excitedly, while helping her assistant ferry a bubbling cauldron to a tin-topped table. They tip the pot, and steaming scarlet liquid slithers across the work surface, hardening almost on impact.

For May, trimming the season is about creating flavors for everyone, including the dairy intolerant and gluten- and lactose free. In 2011, she graduated from the National Gourmet Institute in New York—the school emphasizes vegetarian and vegan cuisine—and she’s been slowly expanding Franklin Fountain’s vegan line ever since, starting with this fall’s coconut-based pumpkin ice cream. Her vegan holiday sundae will be her greatest triumph yet: vegan Peppermint Stick ice cream, vegan hot fudge and vegan coconut-cream whipped cream.

In December, Franklin Fountain will also debut a special sundae commemorating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. This morning, May sets out to recipe-test a final batch while the peppermint candy cools. As she chops dates, she begins to summon the spirit of Christmas Carol Crunch: "First, I’m going to bake sticky toffee puddings in mini bundt pan molds, then I’m going to top each pudding with candied nuts and rum-raisin ice cream." She holds up an ornate cast iron bundt cake mold to round out the vision: "It’s very sexy when the ice cream melts down the little channels."

One can only imagine.

Outside on the street, the sleet slows, and the week’s sugar delivery arrives – four 50-pound bags. The deliveryman is followed in by Eric Berley, the store’s co-owner, dressed in his best tweed. He announces that sitting out in the family van are 900 vintage candy molds from an estate sale in Ohio—his brother just returned with the cache. Above Berley’s head, one can almost see next year’s sugar sculptures dancing in a ring.

Looking for stocking stuffers? Here are a few ideas from Shane Confectionary and Franklin Fountain:

The Locally Sourced Stocking:The Vegan Stocking:For more info, visit Shane Confectionary (110 Market St.) and Franklin Fountain (116 Market St.).

TENAYA DARLINGTON teaches food writing at Saint Joseph's University. Her alter ego, Madame Fromage, lives online at madamefromageblog.com.

All Photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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