Caramels and Candy (and a Pasta Recipe!) From Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey
Inspired by the Benedictine tradition of manual labor, Sister Kathleen O’Neill and her sisters support themselves by selling handmade candy — and lots of it.
Craving pieces of homemade caramels? Especially caramels made by Catholic religious sisters? A brief web search for Mississippi Abbey (Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey) shows the first link is to just general candymakers. But candy-lovers need to scroll down to Hand-Crafted Monastery Candies and the dazzling display of sweets will tempt most people to buy one of each treat. As the web notes: “Our candy is made and sold by the contemplative nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa.”
This popular confection business began more than 50 years ago as the contemplative sisters looked for a way to support themselves. Sister Kathleen O’Neill, the present manager, noted that part of the attraction of the life for her was that the sisters earn their own living — thanks to the candy business.
A cradle-Catholic born and raised in northeastern New Jersey, Sister Kathleen attended Catholic schools through high school. As a teen, she said she attended Mass regularly but her spiritual life was ebbing. After graduation, she continued living in New Jersey and commuted into Manhattan for her job. She met her fiancé in New Jersey through a family connection, and it seemed her future was set. Becoming a nun was never part of her future plans, but that changed one day when on her commute home she started reading The Confessions of St. Augustine, a book she had tucked in her purse.
“I came to the passage where St. Augustine says, ‘I had found the pearl of great price, but still I held back.’ In that instant … I knew I was supposed to give my life to God. … I was having a profound experience with God. … God is giving it to me to wake me up.” Although she and her fiancé already had wedding plans, Sister Kathleen realized she just wanted God. “Most people thought I was crazy,” she said, “but my fiancé was kind about it.”
At that point, and after searching for the right monastery, she entered the Mississippi Abbey in 1979. “We are part of the Benedictine family, following the Rule of St. Benedict,” she said. Any “mission” apart from prayer is not necessarily part of the Benedictine charism. But it was the Benedictine tradition with its history of the religious supporting themselves that started the candy business.
The sisters of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts, which founded Mississippi, shared their recipe with their daughter house and taught them the basics of candy making. After buying the necessary equipment, they started producing their candies. In fact, their business has grown so greatly — “We sold 71,000 pounds of candies last year,” she said — that they have hired four workers to meet the demand.
“We have a substantial business with mail orders and through the internet,” she said. There are three groups: people who order online as a Christmas business for gifts, local retail businesses and monastery gift shops, and a long list of customers who give the candy as gifts. Sister Kathleen is now the overall business manager and handles public relations and sales.
The favorite flavor? Vanilla is the biggest seller, she said, and another favorite is the chocolate caramels. Also the vanilla caramels are coated with milk or dark chocolate, and other favorites are the hazelnut Meltaway and Swiss mint and regular mint candies.
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Recipe: Pasta with Greens
This dish can basically be the whole main course. Or serve it with a side salad of tomatoes cut into long wedges, red onions sliced lengthwise, and dried oregano leaves, marinated in oil and red wine vinegar dressing. The vegetables (especially the broccoli stalks) will flavor the water the pasta is cooking in, adding a little flavor to the pasta. And besides, having only one pot to wash is great!
Proportions of vegetable and pasta are flexible. Something like half-pasta and half-veg in the finished dish can work well; I like to see a little more pasta than veg. Unless you badly overcook something, this dish is hard to spoil. Cooking times are all approximate, so if you’re a little late with one of the cooking steps it shouldn’t matter much — until the zucchini are cooking. Then you need to be alert.
- Pasta. Almost any kind will do. Spaghetti works fine, but smaller pastas work great — fusilli, macaroni, rotilli, penne, farfalle, etc. — but not rigatoni (a great pasta, but not for this dish). Quantity: however much you would make for a main-dish pasta for the number of people you’re feeding. We cook 2 pounds per 12 people, but for some folks that would not be enough.
- Broccoli. If possible, with stalks. Quantity: a little more than you would make for the number of people you’re feeding. We use about 1 head of broccoli per one pound of pasta.
- Zucchini. Again, a little more than you would make for the number of people you’re feeding. We use about 1-3 zucchini per one pound of pasta, depending on the size of the zucchini.
- Butter. About 1/4 pound of butter per pound of pasta, or a little more. Can substitute olive oil — about 3 tbsp. per pound of pasta.
- Fresh Basil. About 3 to 4 leaves per person, cut up if large.
- Garlic. If desired, a small amount of garlic, minced – 1 clove per pound pasta.
- Cheese. Romano (preferably) or Parmesan cheese. At least 1/2 cup grated cheese per pound of pasta. (For a dairy-free dish, substitute 1 tsp. salt per pound of pasta, for the cheese.)
- Melt butter. Unless basil leaves are quite small, cut them up a bit to release flavor. Add basil (and minced garlic if desired) to melted butter (or oil) and allow to sit at room temperature, if possible for at least an hour, for the butter to absorb the flavor.
- Start heating water for cooking vegetables and pasta (together, in one pot). Water quantity: follow directions for the pasta, on the generous side.
- Cut broccoli stalks into small bite-sized pieces. Cut broccoli florets into larger bite-sized pieces (they will disintegrate a bit during cooking and mixing process, so, not too small).
- Slice zucchini into very thin circles, as thin as possible and bite-sized. If zucchini are large, may need to cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and make semi-circles.
- When water boils, add broccoli stalks and cook 2-3 minutes. Then add broccoli florets, continue cooking 2-3 more minutes.
- Add pasta to the water: follow cooking time on package, minus a minute. When pasta is just about cooked, add zucchini and continue cooking 1-2 minutes, until zucchini starts to be transparent.
- Remove from heat; drain; and put in vessel (bowl, basin) large enough for tossing. Add butter (or oil) with basil, and cheese. Toss. May need a little salt (especially if using Parmesan rather than Romano).
- Put in serving dish. If desired, garnish with a few small basil leaves and a bit of sprinkled cheese on top. Have additional cheese available for any who wish.