How Maayan Zilberman Makes Candy From Scratch

“I always thought of food as more of a science experiment.”

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Maayan Zilberman is the owner of Sweet Saba, a luxury candy line created as “candy for grown-ups.” In addition to custom candy, she creates sugar-based art installations for galleries and museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and fairs like Art Basel. At her studio in Brooklyn, Maayan made hard-candy flowers and recounted her path to a confectionary career. She also revealed how she finds inspiration, even when homebound. 

My earliest times in the kitchen were spent with my grandfather when I was a kid. He used to teach me how to make yogurt. It sounds kind of cuckoo, but it's more of a science experiment. He taught me how to use active cultures and a thermometer with cooking. It's actually how I learned to use a candy thermometer. I always thought of food as more of a science experiment.

I started working in a niche part of the fashion industry — lingerie — right out of school. I did an artist residency in Italy right after I graduated from art school in sculpture, and the artist residency was owned by a silk factory called the Ratti factory. They make all of the silk scarves and printed silks for a lot of the big fashion houses in Europe. I toured their factory in rural Italy, and it really had an effect on me. I loved seeing how they mixed all the dyes and how they printed on the fabric. It was so tactile. 
When I got back to New York, I connected with some people who were starting a lingerie company. I didn't have anything to do at the time; I was 19 or 20, just making art in my studio, and I said, "Well, I'll do it." I started working as a designer and eventually cofounded the lingerie line Lake & Stars, without really any training or background in design or textiles. 

I had my own line at a few different companies in a row, then consulted, and then I was creative director at another bigger lingerie company, and then I broke my knee. Doctors told me I had to stop moving and let it heal naturally, or undergo surgery, and I chose to let it heal naturally. So I was home for several months, and I had all this time on my hands. I started looking up videos of how to make stuff at home with what you've got in the kitchen (which is what a lot of people are doing right now, I'm sure). And I started experimenting in the kitchen again like I did with my grandfather. I was like, “I always wanted to make candy." I started making chewing gum and hard candy and jellies, but what I really loved making the most was hard candy because it was sculptural.

What I really loved making the most was hard candy because it was sculptural.

I started making candy at home, kind of just as a visual journal. I started making molds of all these different mementos and things that were meaningful to me. The idea was that if I made a cast of it and then I would be able to get rid of the item, I wouldn't really need it anymore. I made replicas of it, and then I would either give it to a friend to eat, or I would eat it, or it would melt away and then it was just kind of gone. It was my way of coping, as a lot of stuff was kind of hitting the fan at the time. I started posting it on Instagram, and people really responded to it. They really liked it. After a few months or so, people started asking me if I was taking orders. I was like, "What are you talking about? This is my art project." 

After a few months or so, people started asking me if I was taking orders.

I think we often forget that that's how a lot of businesses are started. It starts with something that you're passionate about that really comes from the heart, and if it's something that interests people there will always be a demand for it. I think a lot of people forget that when they're starting a business. It's about connecting with people, and what I did resonated with people. And that's how I started my business, Sweet Saba.
I have learned that retail is going to be a really hard thing if I want to sell the candy that I'm making now. It doesn't really sit on the shelf for several months at a time the way something at 7-Eleven does. There was one exhibit that I did at Art Basel a few years ago, and of course I worked really hard on it. As soon as we uncovered it and it was exposed to the elements, the salt in the air coated all of the candy with this white powder. It ate away at the candy, which ended up being really beautiful and poetic, but it looked totally different than what I had planned. I went into the bathroom and cried as soon as the whole thing was over — I was so devastated. 

In hindsight, with a bit of perspective, I'm realizing sometimes you have to let the material breathe and do its thing. Sometimes the experience teaches you something rather than you trying to control the whole thing. That's what I love about working with this material. Any kind of ephemeral material is always teaching you what's next.

Any kind of ephemeral material is always teaching you what's next.

This is not the first time I've been quarantined. I was homebound with my broken knee, and I also lived in Israel during the Gulf War. We had to stay home for months at a time, and there was a threat of the unknown, but it forced me to be creative and use my imagination and sit in quiet. I think that's what a lot of people are not used to doing. 

Right now, we're sitting in quiet for the first time in a long time. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone has the capacity for it. A lot of people can't feel inspired or motivated, and that's totally okay. I don't want people to think that suddenly you have to write a thesis just because you have time on your hands. It's okay to be sad or worry. It's okay just to watch YouTube for hours and hours because you're going to take something in from it that maybe you'll use later.

If you’re seeking inspiration, go through old childhood photos.

If you’re seeking inspiration, go through old childhood photos. Or if your parents have some, have them go through them and take pictures and send them to you. See if you can find yourself doing any fun things when you were a kid. What were the activities you loved doing that you may have missed? What are those things that really resonated with you that you forgot about but might bring you joy now? 

I've just always loved the aesthetic of candy. A lot of stuff in my house looks like candy. I love resin. I love glass pieces. I like anything that reflects light. I just love the whole aesthetic of candy and cherries and peaches. I'm not obsessed with eating candy because I see it like science, like it's science fiction. I don't look at it like food. I make it into something that's super refined and delicate and precious so that you take the time to decide whether you even want to eat it.
For this shoot, I dyed and flavored candy, and then melted them down. If you don't want to actually cook sugar yourself and risk burning down your kitchen, what you can do is buy a bunch of premade hard candy and melt it down. I've seen it done online a lot with Jolly Ranchers. Get a bunch of Jolly Ranchers, separate them by color, put it in the microwave, and then you can pour it into molds. That's a really good way of doing it at home with kids. 

If you want to try making candy at home, hard candy is the easiest to try before you start making caramel, or any other kinds of candy, because it uses so few ingredients. It’s kind of hard to mess up as long as you have a candy thermometer. The first step is to get a good candy thermometer. The quality of sugar doesn't really matter, but I would get a professional-grade corn syrup. And just make sure that when you boil it to temperature that you just stand over the pot and make sure that nothing burns. This is the step to be very careful. I almost burned the house down a few times learning how to make this.
One piece of advice I give everyone is figure out what you want to make and then watch a bunch of YouTube videos. There are so many amazing home-taught women out there who have made great educational videos, and you can learn everything from these guys. Then I would take the Julia Child approach of how she made chicken. Make it like 20 times. Set up 20 batches of the same thing, and just do it over and over because every time you're going to learn a few more things about the process. With candy you kind of have to intuit when bubbles are getting slower or getting faster; that's how you know it's going to be ready and get to temperature. 

Once your hard candy is made you can pour it into pans, you can pour into muffin tins, you can use whatever you want. If you buy molds, you have to make sure that they will be good up to, like, 350 degrees. I like to make molds because that's my art practice, but you can just order silicone molds in different shapes. If you buy molds online, you'll want to look under "fondant molds," though, not "candy molds"; those are made for chocolate and will melt. Please don't learn the hard way by melting everything in your house. Finally, make sure your candy sets in a cool, dark place — not in a super-humid room, and not in the fridge because the fridge is humid. Humidity and sugar are enemies. To decorate, I paint them with regular watercolor brushes and gel food coloring. 
Experiment and have fun! Once you start to understand what you really like doing and what brings joy into your life, then you can connect that with the experience. Just because we're quarantined or you have to stay home for a while, it doesn't mean this is just a project to get you by. This could actually end up being your life.Photos by Liz Clayman