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Easter eggs: Sugar’s crucial role in the UK’s favourite Easter time treat
From its humble origins as a springtime celebration and one of the most important days in the Christian calendar, Easter has become a festival of chocolate, with Easter eggs as the star of the show. Today’s Easter eggs are feats of confectionery science, with sugar as one of the main ingredients to thank for the endless array of fillings, structures, colours and flavours.
Humans have celebrated the spring equinox at what is now Easter time for as far back as the beginning of recorded history. When Christianity began, the day was given over to observing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Easter traditions of the western world today are mostly a combination of Christian themes and ancient pagan celebrations, although the most ubiquitous symbols – bunnies, chicks and eggs – are undeniably pre-Christian.
The ancient fertility festival that spawned a celebration of confectionery
Eggs being used as a potent symbol of fertility and rebirth can be traced back to ancient Babylonia, where people believed that an egg fell from heaven into the Euphrates river, and hatched the goddess ‘Astarte’: a root form of the word ‘Easter’. In Northern European traditions, tales of a large white rabbit bringing children eggs and treats over the pagan festival of ‘Eostre’ are still passed down through the generations.
Chocolate eggs are a fairly modern invention, appearing in Italy in 1725 when a widow in Turin started pouring molten chocolate into empty chicken eggshells. In the UK, J.S Fry and Sons produced the first recorded British Easter egg in 1873. Nearly 150 years later, in 2021, UK easter sales peaked at 80 million.
Easter egg chocolate: there’s a reason it tastes better
It makes sense that a thinner piece of chocolate can make for a better eating experience, he said, because the quicker the chocolate melts, the easier the aromas of the chocolate will come into your nose and mouth, intensifying both taste and smell.
With the sugar content of most chocolate ranging from 25 to 50 percent, getting the right type is crucial. Only fine-grained, crystalline sugars are used in chocolate production because their texture makes them easy to grind down in the conching process, where a kind of surface scraping mixer and agitator called a ‘conche’ evenly distributes the cocoa butter in chocolate.
Easter eggs and fillings: an infinite diversity
While Easter eggs are usually made of chocolate, the options for what to put inside that chocolate shell are endless. If it’s sweet, sticky and decadent, it’s probably been used to fill an Easter egg. Truffles, caramels, fondants and nougats are all popular.
Invert sugar syrup is the most common pure sugar for Easter egg fillings, because it has a neutral, balanced flavour and the ability to stabilise the filling and keep it separate from the chocolate shell. This is important, because chocolate doesn’t react well to the water inherent in most chocolate fillings. Microbes need water to multiply, so keeping water away from chocolate extends the shelf life of the product.
The chocolate shell: how sugar shapes the final product
In the UK, chocolate must contain a minimum of 20 percent cocoa solids to be able to call itself chocolate. Otherwise, it’s just chocolate flavoured confectionery. But unless chocolate is very dark, it usually contains more sugar than cocoa solids. For UK chocolate, the sugar usually comes from beets grown in the East of the country, or in the EU. Beet sugar has a neutral taste that lets the subtle, smooth flavours of the other ingredients take centre stage.
Today, there’s a chocolate – and at Easter time, a chocolate egg – for everybody. From super-dark to dark, high cocoa content bitter-sweet varieties to creamy milk and white chocolate, the choice is endless. The typical milk chocolate bar contains 25 to 30 percent cocoa, while the darker varieties can contain up to 85 percent.
As anyone who has tried a fresh cocoa seed can attest, the bitter tannins in chocolate are very astringent, making a heavy dose of sugar necessary for a pleasurable eating experience. Without its flavour enhancing and expanding powers, we would completely miss the taste of the cocoa.
Artisan chocolate makers tend to use demerara sugar rather than cheaper, highly refined white sugar because it’s a more natural product. It’s moderately processed to removed much of the molasses content. Unrefined sugar with the molasses still present is rarely used alone in chocolate recipes because it contains more moisture, giving a less luxurious, chalky, quality.
To make the egg shape, while every manufacturer has their own unique process, it usually starts with machines dispersing liquid chocolate into half-egg-shaped moulds. Then, they’re attached to a spinner to affix them to a matching half before being wrapped in colourful foil and sent off to their destinations.
It’s all about the inside: fondant, nougat or caramel?
Fondant is arguably the most universally loved Easter egg filling, with its characteristic glossy white colour and velvety mouthfeel that marries perfectly with the hard textured, creamy tasting chocolate shell. To make fondant, inverted sugar syrup is heated and agitated vigorously. Inverts prevent crystallisation, so using them in fondants enables manufacturers to store fondant products for up to 18 months.
Where fondant leads, caramel is not far behind. With a similar gooey, indulgent texture, caramel’s buttery, smoky flavour makes it a perennially popular Easter egg filling. Many caramel recipes take advantage of golden syrup for its natural toffee flavour and ready-made sumptuous stickiness. Caramel can also be made with crystalline sugars, but inverts are usually added too, to prevent crystallisation.
Nougat – an egg white foam stabilised by a hot liquid sugar – has a pristine white colour and a light, fluffy texture. Like fondant, it’s a classic Easter egg filling that can also be stored for many months thanks to the high sugar content and low water activity. A classic confection, many countries claim parentage to this traditional treat, but in Romania on the Sunday of Forgiveness before Easter, ‘alvita’ – as it is locally known – has been sold in local festivals and fairgrounds since before records began.
At Ragus, in our advanced manufacturing facility in Berkshire, west of London, Easter is already upon us, because we’re working hard to make sure our partners get the pure sugars they need – at the quality they deserve – to fulfil their customers’ needs for peak demand at Easter and beyond.
Ragus manufactures high-quality pure sugars for bulk confectionery applications that manufacturers can prepare months in advance of seasonal demand. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact a member of our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.