At Stutz Candy Co., candymaker Eriq Saldutti opens up a 50-pound bag of sugar and pours it into an electric cream beater the size of a baby swimming pool. A sweet mist quickly fills the air inside the Montgomery County kitchen.
With sugar-fogged glasses, Saldutti reaches his hands into the beater, knuckling the coconut batter like pizza dough as it spins round and round. It’s the start of Irish potatoes, a popular treat for Stutz and other area candymakers.
“We’ve been making Irish potatoes since 1965, using the exact same recipe, same machines, and old-fashioned techniques since we started,” said Stutz’s vice president Kristie Knappik. “People grew up with them, so customers get really excited every year when they return.”
Irish potatoes are a Philadelphia tradition, one that’s more than a century old. In the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, the cinnamon-coated, coconut cream spheres pop up in area candy stores, gift shops, and supermarkets.
“Irish potatoes are kind of like the Mummers,” said Dave Lamparelli, founder of Philadelphia-area candy company Oh Ryan’s, which sold more than 2.5 million pieces of the candy in 2018. “Once you go to New York or Pittsburgh or Washington, they have no clue what they are.”
What are Irish potatoes?
While the exact origins of Irish potatoes are vague, history has it that they were first made in Philadelphia in the 1800s — possibly by Irish immigrants, possibly not. (By 1860, Irish were the city’s largest immigrant population as a result of the Great Famine in Ireland.)
“They’re said to honor the Irish, but I think there was a crazed candymaker out there who accidentally dropped a coconut cream Easter egg he was making into cinnamon,” said Lamparelli. “He looked at it and said, ‘That looks like a potato, I bet I can sell that for St. Patrick’s Day.’”
Stutz’s vice president Kristie Knappik agrees that the timing of Irish potato season is convenient. The miniature spud look-alikes are sold in the lull between Valentine’s Day and Easter, both candy-centric holidays. Irish potatoes are one of Stutz’s best sellers at its three retail shops; the Hatboro-based confectioner produces about 20,000 pieces per year.
What are Irish potatoes made of?
Besides a hefty dose of Amerfond fondant sugar (100 pounds for every 140 pounds of candy), Stutz’s recipe calls for butter, desiccated coconut, vanilla extract, salt, and a house-made marshmallow-like fluff made from corn syrup, inverted sugar, and cornstarch. A splash of water is added as it all comes together in the beater, a step that perfumes the air with a sweet scent of fresh-baked macaroons.
Turned out onto a 60-year-old electric-crank cut roller, the creamy filling is piped out, sliced into bite-size hunks, and rolled smooth. The little white spheres travel down a conveyor belt until they reach a metal ramp. They glide down as if on a waterslide, splashing into a pool of cinnamon at the end.
“It’s inhaling all of the cinnamon that’s probably the most challenging part of the job,” said Stutz production manager Kerwin Subero, a Stutz employee of more than 20 years and Trinidad native who loves the coconut treat.
Workers at the end of the Irish potato line wear masks and gloves as they hand-roll each piece in the ground spice. Stutz also blends a touch of cocoa powder into its candy coating.
Irish potato recipes vary from shop to shop, but coconut and cinnamon are always the dominant flavors. Some places add pine nuts to mimic a sprouted potato’s eyes. Many homemade recipes call for cream cheese, an ingredient eschewed by most manufacturers because it makes the candies less shelf-stable.
“The tartness of the cream cheese helps offset the sweetness of the sugar,” said Pavia Burroughs of Old City’s Shane Confectionery, one of the few shops to still use cream cheese. Shane sold nearly 1,500 Irish potatoes from its refrigerated candy case in 2018.
Of course, you don’t need a commercial cream beater or a cut roller to make Irish potatoes. Recipes for the local treat abound online, requiring little more than pantry staples, a hand mixer, and a large bowl. (In the South, “potato candy” takes on an entirely different meaning; the no-bake, Great Depression-era confection combines real potatoes, powdered sugar, and peanut butter in fudgy, jellyroll-like slices.)
But for most Philadelphians, only store-bought Irish potatoes will do. They are only available for a limited time — St. Patrick’s Day generally marks the cutoff date for production. You can find them at many area candy shops and grocery stores, or order them online at places like the Italian Market’s Anthony’s Italian Coffee and Chocolate House or Reading Terminal’s Pennsylvania General Store.
“We get people who’ve moved away, and they’ll call in, all eager to ask us if we can ship the Irish potatoes up to Massachusetts or New York,” said Stutz’s former Hatboro store manager Kim Wengert. (Stutz will ship for customers who call in.) When Wengart’s nephew turned 9, he asked for them for his birthday. “He was surrounded by toys, but when he opened the [candy] box, he screamed louder than ever: ‘Irish potatoes!’”
This article has been updated since first published.