Joe Carion of Grayslake with a plate of Needhams. The candy, similar to a Mound's Bar, is hand-dipped in melted chocolate.
Paul Valde | Daily Herald
Joe Carion whips up "Needhams Candy"
Not many run-of-the-mill cooks will make this candy
Instead of buying the same old store-bought chocolates this year for your Valentine, Joe Carion recommends whipping up a batch of chocolate-covered mashed potato and coconut candy.
It works for his wife, Mary Beth. Honest.
The candies, called Needhams, are named for a late-19th century evangelist, the Rev. George S. Needham, and are wildly popular with his wife's New England family and throughout Maine. Virtually every upscale candy shop makes them; even the Dairy Queens offer Needhams as a stir-in for Blizzards, he says.
Similar to a Mound's Bar, the filling is made of unseasoned mashed potatoes, powdered sugar, coconut, vanilla and butter. After it chills, it is cut in squares and dipped in semisweet chocolate.
"When I tell people what's in them, they say, 'no way,' " laughs Joe. "The potatoes are not detectable, they just make the filling creamy."
As the story goes, the Rev. Needham was well-known and respected for converting many people to the faith. He happened to be preaching in Portland, Maine, one day in 1872 when a local candy shop was creating a new treat incorporating the state's abundant potato crop.
When the candy maker returned from the service to his shop, one of his employees suggested calling the new candy Needhams in honor of the preacher, and the name stuck.
Fast forward more than 100 years to 1992, when newlyweds Joe and Mary Beth Carion moved to Maine, the land of clam chowder, lobster and this funny potato candy. Knowing that his wife and mother-in-law were crazy about Needhams, Joe decided to make a batch when he found a recipe in a local Junior League cookbook.
"Everybody loved them," he says. "That was our Christmas holiday treat for friends and family instead of cookies. Now if they don't get them, I get phone calls."
When the Carions moved to Grayslake 18 months ago, friends and former neighbors worried about their annual supply of Needhams, so Joe made 30 dozen and shipped a fair share back east.
"Not many run-of-the-mill cooks will make a candy like this," says Mary Beth. "They are hand-dipped and take many hours."
But Joe isn't just a one-recipe guy. The youngest of eight kids from Grosse Pointe, Mich., he says he "grew up on my mom's apron strings," watching her cook more than helping, but absorbing everything.
At home in Grayslake with Jenny, 10, and Tim, 9, Joe cooks on weekends and Mary Beth on weekdays.
From March through November, Joe keeps the outdoor grill hot, applying dry rubs and marinades to steaks and chicken.
"I try to cook everything for a meal without going inside, meat, potato and vegetable."
During the dead of winter he moves indoors with chili, chowders and stews plus great breakfast scrambles.
"It's a release for me from the stress of the world," says Joe, marketing manager for ITW Signode Packaging Systems in Vernon Hills.
Coming from a large family, Joe enjoys entertaining. "The more the merrier," he says.
For 20 years, he has prepared Harv's Dip for Super Bowl Sunday, a family recipe combining sausage, ground beef and cheese. "It's not for the faint of cholesterol," Joe says.
His White Chicken Chili with beans and potatoes is another specialty.
But the Needhams are his tour de force. Honestly.
You need 'em.