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.
At natural foods markets, you can also find date sugar, a sweet powder made of ground dried dates. Unlike other types of sugar, it does not dissolve. Date sugar is particularly good in cookies, pancakes and cinnamon rolls.
Substituting these sugars for ordinary white table sugar can lead to interesting new versions of your favorite desserts. Brown sugars make desserts darker. With chocolate cakes, I find this can be advantageous.
Some forms of brown sugar are moister than white sugar. When you substitute them, you should slightly reduce the liquid amount in the recipe. So with delicate desserts such as sponge cake, start with just a small proportion of a different sugar, taste and see if you would like to add more the next time you make it.
Sugar also comes in liquid form. In addition to the familiar corn syrup, maple syrup, honey and molasses, at natural foods stores you can find brown rice syrup and barley malt. Middle Eastern markets carry additional liquid sweeteners, such as date syrup, carob syrup and grape molasses. When using them in desserts, subtract an equivalent amount of liquid from the recipe.
A few more sugar facts:
m In recipes, plain white table sugar is often referred to as granulated sugar.
m Superfine sugar is finer than granulated; a close British form is called caster sugar.
m Confectioners’ sugar, also called powdered or icing sugar, has been pulverized until very fine. Usually it is mixed with a little cornstarch to prevent caking.
m Coarse or pearl sugar is used for garnish. Sometimes it is sprinkled over pastries before they are put in the oven because it retains a crunchy texture during baking.
m Store brown sugar in a cool area in a covered container.
m Measure brown sugar by firmly packing it into a measuring cup.
m If brown sugar becomes too hard, you can soften it in the microwave. Put about 1 cup brown sugar in a covered container and microwave for 20 or 30 seconds. Check, and if it’s still hard, microwave again, just until it’s soft enough to use but not until it melts. Caution: At this point, the sugar will be very hot. Microwave only the amount you need, since leftovers will harden.
Golden pine nut chocolate chip bars
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, slightly softened
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup pine nuts
1 cup semisweet real chocolate pieces
1/4 cup pine nuts, optional, or confectioners’ sugar, for garnish
Strawberries for garnish, optional
Butter a 9-by-9½-inch square baking pan. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.
Cream butter in a large bowl. Add brown and white sugars and beat until smooth and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.
Beat in 2 tablespoons flour mixture at low speed. Add vanilla and beat until blended.
Using a wooden spoon, stir in remaining flour mixture. Stir in 2/3 cup pine nuts and chocolate.
Transfer batter to prepared pan; spread evenly. Sprinkle evenly with 1/4 cup pine nuts, if desired.
Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until mixture is brown on top, pulls away slightly from sides of pan and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out nearly clean.
Cool in pan on a rack. Dust with sifted confectioners’ sugar, if desired. Cut into 11/4- by 13/4-inch bars. Garnish with strawberries, if desired. Makes 16 to 20 bars.
Sweet potatoes in piloncillo syrup
Here is an easy way to use piloncillo cones. You can substitute other kinds of light or dark brown sugar, such as turbinado, demerara or muscovado. You can also use the same syrup, without the butter, to poach sliced pears.
1 piloncillo cone (about 6 ounces) or ½ to 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 canela or Mexican cinnamon stick or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1½ pounds sweet potatoes (often labeled yams)
1 tablespoon butter, optional
Pinch of salt, optional
Combine 2 cups water and piloncillo cone or ½ cup brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until sugar melts. Add cinnamon.
Peel sweet potatoes and cut in 3/4-inch dice. Add to syrup and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender.
If you’d like the syrup to be thicker, remove sweet potatoes with a slotted spoon and boil syrup for a few minutes to thicken, then return sweet potatoes to pan.
If using brown sugar, taste syrup and add remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar, if you’d like it sweeter.
Heat until blended into syrup. Add butter, if desired, and stir until melted. Add a pinch of salt, if desired. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).