Photo by Elling Lien.
By Andreae Prozesky
A few days ago, I made what is probably my fourth (or maybe my fifth) rhubarb crisp of the summer, and my third (or is it fourth?) since moving into the new house. And for the third (or, you know, possibly the fourth) time, I realized, after having chopped my rhubarb and preheated the oven (in as much as I can do, my oven being satanically possessed), that I was out of brown sugar. Not a difficult thing to find, brown sugar, but I have forgotten to buy it now for what must be two months.
So for the somethingth time, I’ve had to “make” brown sugar. Stop rolling your eyes, I haven’t set up a rudimentary refinery in my basement or anything (yet). I just took some white sugar, drizzled some molasses over it, and smooshed it together with a rubber spatula until, miraculously, brown sugar appeared.
Because, you know, that’s all brown sugar is. They take all the molasses out, then they put it in again. Golden sugar has just a little, dark brown sugar has a little more, but it’s all just refined white sugar underneath. Weird, huh? And why do they do it? Well, there is that slightly molasses-y taste, but brown sugar also serves to keep baked goods nice and moist. If you want to make chewy oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies, brown sugar is what you turn to. White sugar would make them kind of crispy. Which might still be nice, but it’s probably not what you would have had in mind.
White sugar, though, is what you want when you’re making jam. The crystals are small and they don’t have any molasses to clump them together, so they distribute evenly without making big chunks to be broken up. The molasses would also darken the jam a fair bit and interfere with the taste of the fruit. Sometimes the molasses-y taste of brown sugar can compliment fruit quite beautifully—I use brown sugar in my pineapple preserves, for example – but often the brown sugar will kind of weigh down different fruits’ light and summery flavours.
Did you know that you can make your own icing sugar, too? Just take your regular white sugar, throw it in the blender and whizz it around to a powder. Once that’s done, add a couple spoonfuls of cornstarch and whizz it again. The sugar manufacturers put the cornstarch in for a couple reasons. Starch keeps the sugar from clumping, and it also works as a binding agent in some baking. That’s why some recipes, like shortbread cookies and certain sweet pastries call for icing sugar; without the starch component, they wouldn’t hold together quite as well.
This make-your-own-kinds-of-sugar business is good to know if you’re trying to bake with organic ingredients. Organic cane sugar is fairly easy to find, as are organic molasses and cornstarch, but organic brown sugar and organic icing sugar are fairly uncommon.
It’s also good to know if you, like me, forget to buy things for weeks at a time.
There are other varieties of sugar that are less refined than your standard crystal-white by-the-kilo stuff. Demerara and turbinado sugar are the same thing, less refined than regular white and brown sugar. If you put those little packets of “sugar in the raw” in your coffee, this be they. It’s not really what you would call “raw sugar,” strictly speaking, but it’s been through the ringer with less intensity than table sugar has. The crystals are big and kind of amber-coloured, and they’re really tasty sprinkled on top of blueberry muffins before the tray is popped in the oven. Because they’re bigger than regular sugar, the crystals take longer to dissolve, and leave sugary gritty bits at the bottom of your latte, which is either awesome or gross, depending on your perspective. You can’t swap demerara sugar for brown sugar in your baking. Even though it’s brown in colour, it’s not the same as brown sugar. The texture of your cookies (or whatever) will be completely different than it would be with regular brown sugar.
Muscovado sugar, on the other hand, is like brown sugar to the power of brown sugar. It’s much closer to being “raw sugar” than “sugar in the raw” is… sorry if that’s terribly confusing, but it’s the truth. It has a strong molasses taste and big-ish grains, and it is very moist and sticky. You can use it where you would usually use brown sugar, but it’s going to make your baking darker, muskier, more oomphy. I use it all the time in baked goods that can support that kind of intense flavour, like gingerbread, spice cake, chocolate cake, and brownies. Oh my goodness, how I love it. I put it in my tea, too, but I also like to steep my tea in the mug for about twenty minutes until it’s on the barky side. A gentle, dignified cup of tea might not be able to keep up.
Okay, one last thing about sugar, and then I’ll leave you alone. If you wish that you could make homemade lemonade or iced tea without a layer of sugar sludge at the bottom, what you need is to make what’s called a “simple syrup.” If you’ve worked in a bar or as a pastry chef you’ll already know about simple syrup. You use it for mojitos. Need I say more?
This isn’t exactly a recipe, more just instructions. Make as much or as little as you like; it will keep forever in a jar in the fridge.
1 part water
2 parts white sugar
1. Bring water to a boil in a pot on the stove.
2. Add sugar and stir to dissolve.
3. Bring mixture back up to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about a minute.
4. Remove from heat, cool completely, and store in a clean, covered bottle in the fridge.
For flavoured simple syrup, just add your favourite herb, spice, or what have you to the water before you boil it. Syrups flavoured with fresh mint leaves, vanilla pods, gingerroot, and cinnamon are all delicious for making mixed drinks, for drizzling over ice cream, or for serving with soda water. Quantities depend on your taste, but I would use, say, two vanilla pods or a big handful of mint leaves per cup of water. Once your syrup has cooled, strain out your flavourings and store the syrup in the fridge as usual, but try to use it up within about two weeks. That’s a lot of mojitos!