LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This summer, we've been sampling regional candies, and today we head to Maine for needhams. That's a traditional chocolate coconut candy with a surprising local ingredient. Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight tells us more.
PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: That surprising ingredient isn't one of the usual sweet suspects from Maine, like blueberries or maple syrup. No. This local ingredient is something just as true to the state, but more earthy.
JON COURTNEY: Potatoes, surprisingly. Everyone's like these have potatoes in them.
WIGHT: That's Jon Courtney, a friend who lives in Cape Elizabeth. He first stumbled on needhams a few years ago.
COURTNEY: Basically it's coconut and sugar dipped in chocolate. And so if you were to pick one up, you'd be like, oh, this is a homemade Mounds bar.
WIGHT: With potato mixed in to bind the coconut together. Jon was intrigued, so he decided to make his own, and now needhams are his secret weapon at potlucks. To make them, he starts in his garden.
COURTNEY: There's some guys, a couple, some little ones.
WIGHT: Jon digs until he's got a handful of potatoes, then it's into the kitchen to boil and mash.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON CLANGING AGAINST POT)
WIGHT: Next, Jon adds the other essential ingredients. First, a bag of flaked coconut.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAG RIPPING OPEN)
COURTNEY: And melted butter.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)
WIGHT: Then vanilla and a bit of Maine salt. Finally, Jon adds powdered sugar, and stirs it all together with the help of his daughter Nora.
COURTNEY: It's heaven, huh, Nora?
NORA: I'm giving it a good stir.
WIGHT: Jon dumps thick clouds of the potato-coconut concoction into a square casserole dish, spreads it into an even layer, then puts it in the refrigerator to cool. The origin of needhams is hazy, but lore centers around the late 1800s and a Reverend Needham. He either brought the candies to church as an incentive to attend, or he was so popular a local candy maker named the treat after him. Jon Courtney says more recently, needhams have been upstaged by another Maine treat.
COURTNEY: Everyone still makes whoopee pies. That sort of seems to be the gorilla in the room in the Maine sweet world. But the needhams are a little more obscure, so I think most people are like, oh, I haven't seen these for a long time or I don't, you know, know people who actually make them or my grandmother used to make them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOCOLATE CHIPS BEING DUMPED INTO BOWL)
WIGHT: Jon drops baking chocolate and chips into a bowl perched over a pot of boiling water, along with a square of paraffin that will later harden the chocolate. When it all melts, he slices the cooled potato-coconut mixture into one-inch squares and dips them in. They look like bite-sized chocolate gifts, ready to be enjoyed. I don't taste potato.
COURTNEY: It's less about tasting potato, and more about that it's just not really gummy and cloyingly sweet.
WIGHT: Who knew a potato could balance a piece of candy into perfect sweetness and texture. For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight in Lewiston, Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.