French sugar applications in traditional recipes
French cuisine is known for being rich and luxurious, with cheese, butter and wine key components of many famous dishes, such as coq au vin, moules marinières and gratin dauphinois. In this blog, we explore both sweet and savoury French recipes that use another key ingredient in French cooking: sugar. Cross the English Channel and join us in France as we delve into some of the nation’s renowned sugar applications, from tarte tatin to soupe à l’oignon.
Tarte tatin is characterised by its shiny, amber surface, created by a combination of caramelised sugar and butter.
This French-style apple tart is unlike traditional fruit tarts found in the UK for one key reason: the cooking methodology. Here, the apples are initially cooked in a large frying pan with soft brown light sugar to create the characteristic dark amber caramel before being cooled with butter. The fine caster-size crystal of soft brown light sugar means it dissolves and caramelises quickly to prevent the fruit from becoming overcooked.
The fruit is then arranged around the pan in a neat pattern without any gaps. Puff pastry is placed over the pan like a lid and the whole tart is baked in the oven until the pastry reaches a warm, golden-brown colour. Unlike other tarts, tarte tatin is baked upside down, cooled and then flipped. It can be eaten warm or cooled and eaten cold, often with cream or crème fraiche.
Of course, tarte tatin is instantly recognisable by its flawlessly smooth, dark amber top over the fruit. Invented by the Tatin sisters in the late-nineteenth century and made in kitchens across the country ever since, tarte tatin is now baked in boutique bakeries and cafes or mass-produced for supermarkets and restaurants.
The choux owes its delightful puffiness to the yeast in the recipe, which is activated by warm milk and fed by sugar.
Also available in supermarkets, but more often sold as street food, beignets are found at stalls in urban towns and cities across France. Traditionally covered in icing sugar, these small, sweet, doughy treats can now be purchased with a range of toppings, including fruit and chocolate. And while fried dough has been eaten in Europe since antiquity, the recipe for beignets is adapted from French choux pastry, which itself was created in the 16th century.
Unlike most pastries, the beignet choux uses yeast that is activated by warm milk and then mixed with butter, granulated white sugar, egg and flour. It is shaped into small circles and then fried in oil. Finally, it is cooled slightly and dusted with icing sugar.
With France being one of the largest beet sugar producers in Europe, the granulated white sugar used in beignet recipes is often homegrown white beet sugar. This white beet sugar does more than just add a sweet flavour, though, it also feeds the yeast to ensure the shaped pastry expands in the oil and plays an important role in binding the other ingredients together, combining with the gluten in the flour to hold the mixture together and maintain structure once shaped and cooked.
Partial invert sugar syrup’s natural humectant properties enables croquembouche to become a more accessible, longer-life dessert.
An incredible feat of French patisserie, croquembouche is a tall cone of profiteroles decorated with spun sugar or hardened caramel. This hardened sugar is wrapped around the tower in fine strings and gives this dessert its name, which translates as ‘crunch in mouth’. The dark amber colour of the caramelised sugar is said to shine like gold, which is fitting as croquembouche is traditionally reserved for special occasions such as baptisms and weddings.
The cone is constructed from profiteroles, small, round puffs of choux pastry filled with whipped cream that can be flavoured or coloured. Before the golden spun sugar goes on as the finishing touch, the tower is often decorated with icing sugar, fruit, chocolate and even macarons or flowers. The hardened caramel must be created and added immediately before serving as the strings of sugar are so fine that they are liable to melt and collapse.
Traditionally created via a painstaking process of heating and caramelising sugar, these sugar decorations are now far easier and more efficient to make due to technical advances. Indeed, when it comes to commercial production, the profiteroles themselves rely on straight sucrose to act as a sweetness enhancer and partial invert sugar syrup as a shelf-life extender. And, crucially, glucose syrup and caster sugar act as stabilisers in the extravagant spun sugar dressing.
Today, croquembouche is no longer reserved solely for special occasions. It can be found in patisserie windows, served at afternoon tea and even in dessert ranges in supermarkets, thanks in large part to the functional capabilities of the above pure sugar products.
Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée
Snack, starter or a meal in its own right, French onion soup is a humble and versatile dish.
Onions are a popular ingredient in French cuisine. So much so that each inhabitant of France consumes approximately six kilograms of onions per year, according to this source.
One of its key uses, French onion soup, is a famed French export that can be found on supermarket shelves all over the UK, known for its rich, full flavour, created using simple ingredients. And, of course, it is set apart from other soups by its topping. Once the soup is served in bowls, a piece of toast is placed onto the surface of the soup, covered in cheese and then grilled until brown and crispy.
The soup itself is made by frying onions in butter or olive oil until they are soft, then caramelising them with dark soft brown sugar, which lends itself to the caramelisation process due to its small grain size and dark colour. After which, garlic is combined for more flavour and flour is added to thicken the juice before white wine and beef stock are also added, and the soup is simmered.
Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée is another recipe that can be made at home and is often offered as a starter in restaurants and cafes. Of course, it can also be bought premade in shops to take home and heat, which presents a far quicker and more convenient process for the consumer. In these applications, the pure sugar also performs a crucial functional role as a natural humectant. This means it acts as natural preservatives, helping to keep the soup fresh.
Coq au vin
Translating as ‘rooster in wine’ this dish is typically made with chicken or duck and red wine from Burgundy or a local vineyard.
Perhaps the most iconic savoury French recipe, coq au vin is a braised dish of chicken, mushrooms and red wine, often with garlic, onion lardons and herbs. Popular folklore says that Julius Caesar enjoyed coq au vin after his conquest of Gaul, a large area of Western Europe, but the recipe was not officially documented until the 20th century.
In the modern day, coq au vin is enjoyed across the world, from five-star restaurants to home kitchens, where it can be made or even bought as a microwavable ready meal. And for home cooks that want to make things a little easier or avoid buying ingredients they are unlikely to use again, premade sauces are also available.
While not in the traditional recipe, sugar is key to these convenience options. When used in small quantities, cane molasses lends itself well to this recipe, with its bittersweet flavour supplementing the smoky, braised taste while avoiding over sweetening a sauce that relies heavily on wine for its flavour. Caramel syrup may also be used in convenience options for colour development.
This blog has provided an insight into French cuisine, exploring how pure sugars and syrups are used in some of the nation’s celebrated sweet and savoury recipes. Though a range of pure sugar products are used in various French applications, it seems the use of caramelised sugars, syrups and methods is somewhat of a common feature of traditional French cuisine.
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