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Christmas confectionery: choosing the right sugars
What’s Christmas without some festive sweets? When it comes to getting into the holiday spirit, the cultures that celebrate Christmas have an abundance of their own traditional confectionery. From molasses to treacle or muscovado to demerara, the quality of each product depends on using the right sugar.
In the early days of the American colonies, molasses was less expensive than sugar, so if you could afford any sweet treats for Christmas, molasses would probably be on the festive table in some form. There are records of molasses in household account books of ordinary people, who used it as a form of payment. ‘Molasses boilings’ – or ‘taffy pulls’ – were a common pastime in the mid-1800s over the Christmas season and the cold winter months.
Groups of friends would gather around a pot of boiling molasses and wait until it formed threads when a spoonful was dropped in cold water. They would keep stirring until it reached a ‘stiff ball’ consistency, before pouring it into buttered pans to cool. Then, the party began. Each member of the group would cover their hands in butter and pull on the balls of candy until they grew lighter in colour, before shaping them into ropes or braids for a treat for their families on Christmas Day. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, some New Englanders still favour molasses over other sugars to this day, even though crystallines are cheaper and much more widely available.
Honeycomb, also referred to as ‘hokey pokey’ if you’re from Australia or New Zealand (or Cornwall, interestingly), or ‘sponge candy’, ‘cinder toffee’ or ‘sea foam’ depending on where you’re from in the US, is a light, airy sweet made from golden syrup and bicarbonate of soda. While it’s not technically a traditional Christmas confection, it’s a classic one that shops and supermarkets fill their shelves with over the festive season.
The honeycomb structure is caused by the bicarbonate of soda reacting with the hot golden syrup and creating pockets of air. It has a delicious sweet, toffee flavour and is often covered with chocolate. Golden syrup is the ideal sugar for honeycomb because it has a sweetness value 20% higher than sucrose (white sugar), a beautiful golden colour and mellow taste that focuses the eating experience on the distinct bubbly texture. It also helps to prevent crystallisation because of its humectant properties.
Fudge holds pride of place in Christmas gifting tins and on festive dining tables all over Europe and North America. Some people assume that fudge is a British invention because there are so many regional versions of it in the UK. But fudge is actually uniquely American, resulting from an accident with a botched (‘fudged’) batch of caramels, when the sugar was left to sit too long and recrystallised.
Sugar crystals in your confectionery are usually not a good thing, but the tiny microcrystals in fudge are what give it its firm texture. The crystals are small enough, however, that they don’t feel grainy on your tongue, but smooth.
Fudge requires three essential ingredients – sugar, butter and milk – but for the sugar part, muscovado adds a depth of flavour you won’t get with lighter sugars. Dark muscovado adds a complex dimension, due to having a higher molasses content.
Muscovado sugar is moister and stickier than brown sugar and comes in light and dark variations. Light muscovado sugar is similar to regular brown sugar in flavour, while dark muscovado has a distinctive, almost scorched, flavour, with a hint of bitterness.
Caramel in colour, with a delicate, lacy appearance, cone-shaped brandy snaps are a much-loved Christmas time treat that blur the line between biscuits and confectionery. It’s not clear why they feature in so many festive spreads in the British Isles, but it could be because so many recipes include warming, Christmassy spices like ginger and cinnamon.
In the early 1800’s, brandy snaps were called ‘jumbles’ and were served flat, like a pancake. But for reasons that have been lost to the mists of time, at some point the flat jumble was wrapped around a wooden spoon handle to make a cone or a roll.
The very first recorded mention of ‘brandy snaps’ is at the Herefordshire Fair in the early 1900s. However, the brandy snap may have come from the French ‘gaufres’ or wafers that were made in the 14th century. Despite the name, there is absolutely no alcohol involved in the making of brandy snaps. The brandy part comes from the verb ‘brand’, as in burn.
Demerara sugar – a coarse, unrefined brown sugar – gives brandy snaps their signature toffee flavour. Other crystalline sugars will give you a lighter coloured and less caramel flavoured snap. Demerara sugar has large crunchy crystals, but in the making of a brandy snap the sugar is dissolved, so it’s more about the taste than the size of the crystals.
Most confectionery, unless it’s sugar-free (in which case it’s not really confectionery at all) relies on sugar to become what it is. While other ingredients may play a key role too, pure sugars are the foundation of just about any sweet or candy. That’s why it’s so important to use the correct type of sugar with the desired performance characteristics for every product.