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Sprinkles of delight
I thought I had seen sugar in just about all its forms until recently, when I encountered it at an Indian ice cream shop in Los Angeles where I drank delicious juice made of sugar cane stalks. This is nothing new, of course. It has been consumed like this in India for thousands of years. Arabs introduced it to Europe. Sugar cane juice is still consumed in Southeast Asia and Central America. I just had not encountered it.
Sugar has been with us as a cooking ingredient for millenniums. Europeans made sugar from beets, since beets grow more readily in their climate and there’s little difference between beet sugar and white cane sugar.
On a visit to a Louisiana sugar factory, I noted the sweet, herby aroma of cane in the air as I watched the stalks being crushed by enormous rollers.
The juice was filtered and heated until crystallized and then whirled in a centrifuge to force out the molasses. Next, the crystals were refined into white sugar. (To make brown sugar, some of the molasses is added back to the refined white sugar.)
It’s easy to find at least a few types of sugar at the supermarket, some of which are unrefined or, at least, less refined than common white table sugar. Some cooks prefer unrefined sugar, since the molasses removed from white sugar contains vitamins and minerals. The various sugars come in different flavors and textures.
Not long ago, I sampled jaggery — also called palm sugar — at a Sri Lankan restaurant where it was being used as a dessert sweetener.
I asked for a sample of the sugar on its own, and it was a delightful surprise. What I tasted was dark brown sugar with a deep, delicious flavor like a piece of good chocolate. Like maple syrup, jaggery is made from tree sap. It’s boiled until thick, then cooled until solidified and sold in cakes. Sri Lankan cooks use jaggery in such desserts as steamed coconut milk pudding.
I found another form of brown sugar at my local Mexican market, where brown cones of sugar known as piloncillo are sold in the produce department. Piloncillo tastes like dark brown sugar with a hint of caramel.
To use it, you can chip off pieces of the hard cone with a knife. Or you can heat the cone in water until it melts into a syrup. Use the syrup to cook sweet potatoes or poach pears, apples and other fruit.
Piloncillo is unrefined sugar made by boiling down cane juice without removing the molasses, then pouring it into molds to cool, according to Rick Bayless, author of “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen” (Scribner).
“What comes out is hard and strong-flavored, usually stronger tasting than dark brown sugar, but not as strong as molasses,” Mr. Bayless said. He uses it to make candies.
A Vermont friend sent me a cake of maple sugar, which is maple sap heated beyond the syrup stage so that it crystallizes. Maple sugar is also available powdered and can be used like cane sugar. It is a favorite of chef Ann Gentry, who uses it to sweeten many of the desserts in her celebrated Los Angeles restaurant, Real Food Daily.
Miss Gentry also uses sucanat, an organic brown sugar sometimes referred to as whole cane sugar or evaporated cane juice. It is made by drying sugar cane juice without removing the molasses and grinding it to a powder.
Other less refined brown sugars available at natural foods markets are turbinado, muscovado and demerara. The darker they are, the more molasses they contain and the stronger the flavor. Muscovado is the darkest. Turbinado, which has a subtle flavor, is among the lightest. It makes a fine replacement for refined white and brown sugars, particularly for topping cakes, cookies, crumbles and pies.
Some cooks are concerned that natural brown sugars might be sticky, due to the higher molasses content, but they vary in texture. In my pantry, I have a canister of light brown demerara sugar with a delicate brown sugar flavor. The grains are crunchy, not sticky, and are great sprinkled over hot cereal.
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