Circus Peanuts -- you either love them or hate them. For those who hate them, it's often because of the texture. For those who like them, is it the flavor? What flavor is it anyway?
These hard orange peanuts, complete with dimpled sides, are marshmallow confections. Circus Peanuts are a much different marshmallow from the Jet-Puffed product for roasting on the campfire or the bunny-shaped Peeps. Circus Peanuts, and the marshmallow bits (called marbits) in Lucky Charms, are denser, grained marshmallows with some of the sugar in crystal form.
Marshmallows are aerated, and the low density means they float in water or hot chocolate. Even Circus Peanuts float because they are less dense than water, just like the marbits in Lucky Charms that float in your cereal bowl.
The history of Circus Peanuts is clouded in the annals of time, perhaps because nobody wants to admit responsibility for developing this much-maligned product. What type of person would come up with the idea of making an orange peanut-shaped marshmallow candy with an indeterminate flavor?
Interestingly, the history of the marbits in Lucky Charms started with the Circus Peanut. The story goes that the developer of Lucky Charms, an employee of General Mills, tried shaving some Circus Peanuts into his cereal and loved the effect. A new cereal was born, with the marbits becoming almost legend. You can even discover your sexual preferences through your likes and dislikes of marbits (www.trygve.com/uecharms.html).
Circus Peanuts have a Wisconsin connection, but it's not to the Ringling Brothers circus in Baraboo. The leading manufacturer of this sweet is Melster Candies Inc. in Cambridge.
According to Barb Klubertanz, a University of Wisconsin-trained food scientist in charge of quality control and product development at Melster Candies, Melster makes more Circus Peanuts than both of the other manufacturers combined.
The ingredients in Circus Peanuts include sugar and corn syrup as the main ingredients, but also listed are gelatin, soy protein and pectin. There's orange color and an artificial flavor added as well.
The sugar and corn syrup provide the sweetness, and the gelatin provides the whipping capacity. To make Circus Peanuts, the sugar and corn syrup are mixed and cooked. After the syrup cools a little, the gelatin is added, and the syrup is whipped to incorporate air. The aerated syrup, while still warm, is poured into molds to form the peanut shape. The gelatin sets as the marshmallow cools and holds the air in the candy mass.
The mold for Circus Peanuts is actually a depression in dry corn starch. A tray is filled with corn starch into which depressions are made in the shape of a peanut with the dimples on the side formed in the starch.
Circus Peanuts have two sides. One side is the peanut shape with dimples, and the other side (the top) is where the mold is filled. When the marshmallow syrup is poured into the mold, the top side is flat. As the marshmallow cools and dries, some of the sugar in the syrup crystallizes, and the contraction associated with crystal formation causes the concave depression to form.
The unique shape comes from the way the candy is formed. The unique flavor comes from ... well, what is the flavor?
It's banana -- can you believe it, or even figure it from the taste? Who would dream up a product that is orange, looks something like a peanut and tastes like a banana? And what's that got to do with the circus?