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Biscuits stacked in the shape of a Christmas tree with a star on top and a dusting of icing sugar with some cinnamon sticks

Sugar’s role in the food and drinks of the holiday season

21/12/2023 By Kay Sandhu in Applications

Sugar plays an important role in the drinks and dishes enjoyed during the holiday season. Religious festivals like Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrated at this time of year, and each faith has its own food traditions and customs. Secular holidays like Thanksgiving are also focused on feasting.

In this blog, we highlight a selection of sugar-rich seasonal recipes typically eaten on these holidays and explore how sugar is used to enhance the food and beverages we may consume.

Festive main courses

A traditional part of Jewish cuisine, latkes are served during the festival of Hanukkah. Latkes are a potato cake or fritter. The potato is grated and mixed with an egg to bind it and a few other ingredients before it is fried until golden and crispy. Many of the foods eaten during Hanukkah are fried in oil as this symbolises the fact that Jews lit the menorah with oil for only one day, but it miraculously stayed lit for eight days. Sometimes latkes are topped with apple sauce or sour cream, but other times they are served with a sugar syrup made using soft brown light sugar to give the latkes a sweet twist.

A selection of fried potato pancakes on a white plate

Traditional Latke, a potato pancake glazed with sugar syrup giving a unique savoury-sweet flavour.

The Christmas meal isn’t always goose or turkey. It’s now more common to serve other meats on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, such as a honey-glazed ham or gammon or even honey-glazed vegetables. This doesn’t mean that honey is used, however. Dark soft brown sugar or treacle may be used for the glaze to provide stickiness, depth of flavour and a mellow sweetness that somehow cuts through the richness of the meat.

Piece of half-sliced glazed gammon on a metal slab with orange slices

Treacle’s dark colour and caramelisation during roasting gives gammon its dark brown crunchy crackling coating.

Soft brown light sugar works best for its subtle, caramel-like flavour, but dark cane muscovado sugar can also work well, with its higher molasses content that darkens the meat and intensifies the flavour. Light cane muscovado or a soft brown sugar will also be used to soften the tartness of the cranberries in the making of cranberry sauce which traditionally accompanies turkey.

Candied sweet potatoes are a Southern side dish usually served at Thanksgiving. Here, a mixture of butter, a dark cane sugar common in sugarcane producing states of the USA such as dark cane muscovado sugar, maple syrup and bourbon give the potatoes a rich, sticky, viscous-thick caramelised glaze that complements the mellow savouriness of the turkey meat.

Slices of carrot or sweet potato in a frying pan with pecan nuts

Sugar has many functional properties, including flavour, colour, texture and mouthfeel, which are all at play in candied sweet potatoes with muscovado sugar.

Puddings and baked treats

Christmas pudding, or plum pudding, is traditionally eaten as a dessert on Christmas Day. Made from a blend of dried and candied fruits, spices, suet and eggs, black treacle is usually added to darken the cake’s colour and add a more bitter sweetness and moisture. Moisture is important as, like with the fruit-filled Christmas cake, it is usually made in advance of being eaten and would otherwise dry out. Sugar is a humectant, which means is retains moisture and therefore extends shelf life. However, different sugars can be used in the making of Christmas pudding, which you can read about in our blog on how different sugars affect Christmas pudding.

Christmas pudding with custard on top sitting on a red plate on a Christmas table Slice of Christmas cake on a plate with a sprig of holly on top

Christmas pudding and Christmas cake would not have their distinctive deep rich colouring and flavour profiles without sugars, such as black treacle and dark soft brown sugar.

For many people who celebrate Christmas, the season just wouldn’t be the same without mince pies. Mince pies have their origins in 13th century England, where the Middle Eastern custom of mixing meats, fruits and spices was embraced by returning European Crusades. Today, recipes for mince pies call for different types of sugar, but dark soft brown sugar brings an added intensity to the fruit and spices.

Another beloved sweet confectionery associated with a major holiday is gulab jamun. Often eaten at Diwali, a festival celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains around the world, gulab jamun are fried dough balls that are served in a warm sugar syrup liquid flavoured with spices. Often caster sugar is used for the syrup, but demerara sugar also works well as the coarse crystals rapidly dissolve and the dissolved sugar is intensely sweet.

Light cane muscovado sugar is an essential ingredient in the always-popular Yule log, a log-shaped chocolate cake decorated to appear like it has a bark-like exterior before candles are placed in it and burnt on the hearth. The sugar adds colour, a smooth texture and volume during the making of the cake.

Sugar syrup dough balls on a gold-coloured dish Doughnuts with icing sugar on top

Gulab Jamun (left) is often eaten at Diwali with sugar syrup. Hanukkah doughnuts (right) coated in fine icing sugar and filled with jams made with demerara or soft brown light sugars.

Returning to Hanukkah, sufganiyah are essentially doughnuts filled with jelly or jam that tend to be made with white granulated sugar as this ensures a light, fluffy texture. However, demerara or soft brown light sugar can also be used.

Drinks and snacks

Based on posset, a warm beverage consumed by the aristocracy in medieval England and often made from curdled milk, ale and sugar, eggnog continues to be popular, especially in North America where some of the ingredients were harvested. Eggnog mixes eggs, sugar, milk and an alcoholic component, like brandy or sherry. The sugar used to make it can vary from white or golden caster sugar to soft brown light sugar, depending on the taste required.

A lemon-coloured dessert in two glasses A hot chocolate drink in a black cup and saucer

Lemon posset (left) and Peruvian hot chocolate (right) need sugar to counter strong flavours and add mouthfeel.

A spiced hot chocolate drink, drunk in sugarcane producing Peru as part of Christmas tradition, uses cane sugars to balance out the bitterness of the cooking chocolate. As the sugar is dissolved, the recipe can use different varieties of crystalline cane sugars, such as light or dark muscovados, or even soft brown sugars.

Mulled wine or red punch in two glasses with cinnamon sticks and star anise Orange-coloured seasonal drink in a glass with a cinnamon stick and star anise

Mulled wine (left) uses soft brown light sugar to add viscosity, whereas mulled apple cider (right) uses dark soft brown sugar to enrich the flavour.

Other drinks that remain popular at this time of year include mulled wine, often made with soft brown light sugar to give it a syrupy quality, and mulled apple cider, which also works well with dark soft brown sugar to give it an enriched, molasses flavour that somehow enhances the spices.

Sugar has an important part to play in many holiday feast celebrations, and our blog on how sugar is used over the holiday season expands on this.

Ragus manufactures high-quality pure sugars for food and beverage applications in all the world’s cuisines. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Kay Sandhu

Kay ensures that our customers’ orders are delivered, on time and in full.

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