From delectable caramel apples to uniquely flavored fudges, Kilwins in The Villages is the perfect place to satisfy your sweet tooth.
STORY: Shemir Wiles PHOTOS: Fred Lopez
It’s February, and those with sweethearts know it is time to head to the store to buy sappy love cards, overstuffed teddy bears, and most importantly, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. However, if you are anything like me, the typical V-Day fare doesn’t impress. In my humble opinion, it is predictable, uncreative, and a little dated.
Therefore, in search of something a little more inspired, I looked high and low for a place that would satisfy my love for sweets and pique my curiosity. I found what I was looking for at Kilwins located in the Spanish Springs Town Square in The Villages.
This Kilwins location isn’t new; it’s been in the square for a quite a number of years. However, the owners, Gary and Dale Uptegraft, are new; they just purchased the franchise last September.
“We started thinking about retirement, but couldn’t fully retire. Therefore, we decided we would look into possibly buying a Kilwins franchise,” said Dale. “Gary knew Kilwins because he grew up in Michigan where Kilwins started, so we looked all over for a location and found this one for sale in The Villages. We thought we would give it a shot.”
With a little elbow grease and a lot of love, the Uptegrafts restored the store to its former glory and opened quietly to little fanfare. However, the word about their premium confections and extraordinary ice creams spread rapidly, bringing in a steady stream of customers through the entire holiday season.
One thing I loved about Kilwins is the fact most of their products are made on site. “In the store, we make caramel corn, peanut brittle, and another treat we call Nutcracker Sweets, which has popcorn, almonds, pecans, and caramel,” said Dale. “We also dip graham crackers, Nutter Butters, marshmallows, Oreos, Twinkies, and pretzels in chocolate right here in the store.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to what the locals love, Dale said people can’t seem to resist Kilwins’ caramel apples and fudge. Luckily for me on the day I came for a visit, Gary and his kettle cook, Howard LaBarca, were preparing a 25-pound batch of caramel to dip apples.
Cooked for three hours, the caramel is consistently stirred in a copper kettle. By the time I had arrived, the caramel had already reached the desired consistency and Gary and Howard were chomping at the bit to start dipping. With the synchronized precision of an assembly line, the men moved quickly to dip 72 Granny Smith apples. Tightly holding the sticks, which are planted into the top of each apple, they rolled the apples swiftly yet smoothly in the caramel. After a few quick shakes to remove any excess caramel, each apple then landed in a bowl packed with chopped nuts. On this day, Gary worked with pecans while Howard handled the peanuts.
Next, I watched as Gary and Howard scooped the nuts in their palms and packed them tightly around the apples, making sure the nuts bonded to the caramel. Then once fully covered, the apples were placed on cookie sheets covered in parchment paper to cool, and the leftover caramel was put away to be made into chews later.
Watching all the action made me a little hungry so I was happy when Dale said she was slicing an apple to set out for customers to sample. She handed me a slice of their dark chocolate and sea salt caramel apple, and it was so delicious that I took one back to the office. These are nothing like the cheesy little caramel apples people purchase from the grocery store around Halloween time. Kilwins’ caramel is smooth and creamy but it does not stick to your teeth, causing you to fear losing a dental crown. And the Granny Smiths are the right amount of tartness to contrast with the sugary sweetness from the chocolate and caramel. Moreover, they are juicy and quite fresh.
I didn’t get to see Howard make his legendary fudge (which I understand is a sight to see all on its own), but he did explain the whole process, which involves working the fudge for 15 minutes straight with a paddle before it can be turned into a loaf. On most days he makes about three loafs, but he recalled making 10 the day the store reopened. I told Howard he must have amazing upper body strength; he just looked at me with a smile, then laughed.
I usually don’t like fudge because I think it’s too sweet, but I figured it was important for me to see why Kilwins fudge has created such a fuss. With 12 different flavors in the store, it was hard to decide which one to sample; I eventually decided to try the newest flavor: rocky road. To my surprise, it was actually pretty yummy and not excessively sweet. And I liked how the marshmallow and nuts in the fudge gave it that real rocky road ice cream taste.
Before leaving, I talked with customer Jeanette Williams, who lives in Country Club Hills and has been coming to Kilwins for six years. That day she was in the store with a friend admiring the caramel apples. “I just love their ice cream and caramel apples,” she said. “I also love their chocolate-covered cherries. I moved here from Ohio and let me tell you, there is nothing like this up there. I come at least a couple times a month to treat myself.”
Though Kilwins will be offering Valentine’s Day goodies like hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries, strawberry chocolate chunk fudge, and strawberry cheesecake ice cream, I still encourage people to be bold and different. Who knows, a delightful piece of fudge or a gourmet caramel apple may be just the thing to turn this cookie-cutter, Hallmark holiday into something a little more special — and a lot more sweet.