Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stinky Slow-Poke, Part 2

An article in today’s New York Times dining section addresses the sugar du jour--and the one that I’ve been baking with lately: unrefined cane sugar. In other words, cane syrup, brown sugar and molasses. I.e., Sugar in the Raw, not Splenda.

As Julia Moskin and Kim Severson point out, "for bakers everywhere, especially during the season of fruitcake and gingerbread, the distinct spicy, earthy flavor of unrefined cane--the taste of cane syrup, brown sugar and molasses--is irreplaceable. The classic recipes date back to a time before white sugar was found in every cupboard. We may pull out the ginger, nutmeg and cloves when baking for the holidays, but the truth is that the old-fashioned flavor (and toasty colors) of treats like spice cookies and plum pudding is really the flavor of unrefined sugar cane."

I will say that those molasses spice cookies (see post below) I made last week have gone pretty quickly; my friends at the office gobbled them up--though they all thought they were ginger snaps before I notified them otherwise--and I bundled some and froze them to give as holiday gifts. The rest (a small tupperware full on my kitchen counter) are being rationed out to Fork and I, but I'm thinking of ditching that plan since their chewiness has already given way to crispiness...

Anyway, back to Moskin and Severson. They give "a quick sugar primer," explaining that the aforementioned sweeteners all start with the juice squeezed from sugar cane stalks. To make sugar, they say, the juice is quickly spun in a centrifuge. Pale amber crystals rise to the top, becoming sugar; the brown solids sink to the bottom, becoming molasses. Et voila.

The article also pays homage to some of America’s sugar mommies--the good people of southern Louisiana, who basically have turbinado running through their blood and whose families have worked in the sugar business since the 1700s. Unsurprisingly, these folks have seen massive changes in the marketplace in the last 50 years: as Moskin and Severson write, "The American market for cane sugar has been shrinking steadily since the 1950s, under pressure from cheaper refined alternatives like beet sugar and corn syrup, and especially from synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, which is sold as Splenda. There are only a dozen sugar mills left in Louisiana." Supersize that.

My favorite part of the article are its piquant lines like "When baking with these darker sweeteners, you reclaim the satisfyingly complex flavors of the past" (cue Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") and "We take sugar for granted as a supermarket staple, but the quest for it is one of the great dark epics of food history." Muuahahaha. No, really. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and don’t forget the molasses.--S

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