We are fortunate to live in an age where sugar has become such a commonplace household ingredient. For something so sweet and pleasure giving, its history is wrapped up in every human facet of ingenuity, entrepreneurship and oppression. It has shaped political landscapes and divided the masses. The expense of sugar in former times dictated the occasions at which sweet treats would make an appearance and such consideration still holds today. Once the reserve of only the wealthy, we now add it to the trolley without a second thought; if only to sweeten our tea.
Confectionery for me, meant celebrations. For Indians, it was milk based, sweet nut confections such as the diamond shaped, silver foil topped cashew nut barfis, bright green, squat shaped pistachio pedas or round, deeply golden, sugar soaked, gulab jamuns. These treats came out in huge boxes to celebrate a new baby’s arrival, a marriage and more amusingly, when someone passed the notoriously difficult UAE driving tests! For the same reasons, my Arab colleagues would come round offering floral scented, syrup soaked baklavas, shredded pastries encased with nuts, all of it beautifully lined up and perfectly bite sized. You couldn’t resist licking the sticky residue off your fingers. These are the sweeties of my youth, the scents and colours of my memories and the long forgotten tastes of celebrations.
So you can imagine my delight when I found out that my favourite author was releasing a book solely dedicated to sugar treats. Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra, who brought the exceptional Warm Bread and Honey Cake into my home and kitchen, has used her food writing and history knowledge to offer up Sugar and Spice. My zeal and passion for the former is well documented and when her new book was to be released, I was itching with impatience. A good pal took pity on me and before I knew it, my copy was on it’s way to me.
Anticipation turned into panic. My fierce loyalty to Warm Bread and Honey Cake made me doubtful that even the same author could create the same feelings twice. I approached the book with a sense of defeat; it promptly put me to shame. On a first, hasty, greed inducing read through, I felt wonderfully guilty. I was about to betray my first love.
This book is based on nothing but a love of sugar. Within the first few lines of the introduction, you are aware of how much the subject captures the heart of the author; her personal life is interwoven with the towering grass shoots that are sugar canes. From her upbringing in colonial Guyana to some of her post university years spent in Spain and married life in Holland, sugar has been a constant companion informing, educating and pleasing her palate. The information she has collected over time is given to us readers generously, with as wide a repertoire and as much information as the pages allow. Here, every kind of sweet is covered barring the baklavas and filo pastries she covered extensively in Warm Bread and Honey Cake.
We aren’t talking only of how to make multi-coloured marshmallows or salted caramels. The entire book focuses on the original, great, timeless, classic, native sweet treats of various regions, even within the same country. She has identified a common thread amongst them all and combined them accordingly into various chapters. So you will find the Coffee Blocks from The Hague sitting in harmony with the Saffron Nut Toffee Clusters of Iran in the same chapter. Nuts in every form – whole, roasted, salted, candied, ground – in pastes, powders and flaked are covered meticulously. Nougats, Turkish delights/Lokum are explained in thorough detail. The semi-neglected but celebrated milk based sweets of India are given it’s pride of place in the book and include some of my absolute favourites, like Gulab Jamuns, Burfis and Pedas. Toffees, brittles and caramels in every shade of amber, with combinations that include spices, treacle, seeds and nuts cannot but tempt. Little tarts made with dried mangos and paneer, cherry and frangipane, nut lace pastries and pistachio short crusts make one of the prettiest chapters of the book. Chocolate – oh she likes her chocolate – has been truffle-d, brownie-d and tart-ed to the max, but never vulgarily so. I had a pinch of affection when I saw a chapter dedicated to shortbreads, the authentic Scottish types, down to those infused with flower waters and syrups, or tinged with matcha powder. The extensive marzipan chapter has converted me, a savage marzipan hater (I’ve only had the commercial varieties reeking of cheap almond essence) to someone eating lumps of the paste before they could even get to their final form. And don’t get me started on the decadent fudge and tablets. My dentist is laughing…all the way to the bank.
All my forays into the book here, were straightforward. I had no doubts or questions while wielding a sugar thermometer in a pan. There is a talent to writing recipes; you want to give enough information without overwhelming the reader, particularly when it comes to confectionary. It has to be thorough, but succinct and this author possesses that gift. Confectionery work is a lot about science and with each attempt, you learn something more and add knowledge to inform your instincts. So stick with the instructions given, don’t substitute caster sugar when it calls for granulated (arhem..disaster), unless stated and have a bit of patience. If you are short on such a virtue as I am, this is a rather pleasant way of developing it, with a tangible reward at the end for your good endeavours!
Gram flour sweets / Chocolate Orange Brownies
Carribean Toolums – A hard coconut and dark sugar sweet. Indian Pistachio Pedas – A sweet, milk based treat
Ginger & Orange Fudge. Pine Nut & Almond Clusters
Macademia Nut Brittle
This is a beautifully produced book, from the eye pleasing typography, the pastel colour tones of the pages and the uncluttered, pared down style of the photography. There is a sense of light playfulness in the design which is a reflection of what sweet making at home should feel like. Gaitri’s writing is as ever warm and inviting and there is so much variety to choose from that everyone’s palate can be catered for. With every recipe I’ve made, this book has endeared itself to me so much more.
I chose to post the recipe for the Dutch Cream Truffles. I cannot explain how seductive the textures are. Think of biting into a crisp shell of dark, bitter chocolate, followed by a sweet, melting, silken, vanilla infused buttery cream and having the two merge and melt together on your tongue. That kind of taste that draws silence at the table. Better yet, it can be made a few days in advance and can be frozen for up to a month. Bring it to room temperature for an hour before eating. It would make a cracking hostess gift or a wee something to bring out with coffee. If there are any of you who like to make something special for Valentine’s Day, then this little number will hit all the right notes.
In conclusion – if you want to become an intrepid explorer of the world of confectionary, Gaitri will be there to steer your course. This is the book I will turn to, if I want to make something extra special; a bang in a small bite. Truly, the satisfaction that comes from making these treats yourself is only surpassed by the look of enjoyment on the recipients faces. Priceless.
Dutch Cream Truffles
For the filling
200ml/ 7fl oz /generous 3/4 cup whipping cream
100g/ 3 1/2 oz / 1/2 cup caster sugar
1/2-1 vanilla pod (best) 1 tsp vanilla bean paste (preferable to extract) or 1 tsp vanilla extract
150g / 51/2 oz / 11 tbsp (scant 3/4 cup) softened, room temperature butter
For the coating
35-40g / 1 1/4-1 1/2 oz / generous 1/3 – scant 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
250g / 9 oz squares of dark chocolate, broken into pieces*
Note : This method is completely different from the usual method for truffles. Please read through before proceeding to make the truffles.
Put the cream and sugar in a small saucepan. Add the scraped vanilla bean seeds/paste/extract to the pan and let the mixture heat up very slowly. Take it off the heat as soon as the sugar has dissolved and leave to get to room temperature. Take care NOT to boil the cream. I found that the cream didn’t need to heat up greatly and I was able to use the cream within 10-15 minutes. Check the heat before the next step.
Using the whisk attachment, whisk the butter until soft and smooth. Pour the room temperature sweet cream mixture in a thin stream onto the butter while whisking. The mixture will curdle and look lumpy but continue pouring slowly, scraping down the sides as needed. Whisk on a slightly higher speed than medium (6 on the Kitchen Aid) for a few minutes, until you see the mix become smooth and glossy like a silky buttercream. Stop whisking when the mixture can hold it’s shape. If it’s slightly soft, place in the fridge for a few minutes to help cool it.
Line 2 baking sheets with greaseproof paper/wax paper/silicone sheets. Using two dessert spoons, shape a spoonful of the mixture into quenelles, or long oval shapes, by transferring the mixture from one spoon to the other shaping it as you do so into a domed oval. Slide onto the sheet, using the other spoon to help transfer it. Stick a toothpick/cocktail stick vertically through the centre of the oval, all the way to the other end. Put the trays in the freezer and leave the ovals to freeze.
For the coating; scatter half the cocoa powder, over a baking sheet. Melt the chocolate in a bain marie over a pan of simmering water. Leave to cool until around 30 deg. If the chocolate is too warm and liquid, it will give too thin a coat on the cream ovals. Close to blood temperature is good enough. Remove the ovals from the freezer. Holding them with the toothpick, dip them quickly into the chocolate, coating it all round and tap the toothpick rapidly on the side of the bowl to remove excess chocolate. Place carefully on the cocoa powder. Continue with all the ovals. You may need to reheat the chocolate slightly half way through.
When all the ovals have been dipped and the chocolate has set, carefully remove the toothpick. You can coat the hole with a bit of chocolate using a toothpick, if you want. Put the rest of the cocoa into a sieve and dust each truffle generously. Turn them over gently and dust any bald patches. Place in the fridge to set fully before packing into containers with sheets of greaseproof paper between the layers.
These will stay in the fridge for a few days (if you can manage that) or frozen for a month. Remove from the fridge about half an hour before serving and serve at room temperature for the best texture and flavour.
* I am loathed to melt more chocolate than necessary. I needed only a 100gm but this depends on how big or small your quenelles are. Should you have leftover chocolate, make chocolate discs as Gaitri has shown in the book. Place teaspoons of the chocolate spaced well apart on a sheet ( Mix in a bit of liquer or orange extract into the melted chocolate if you like) and top with anything you like…nuts, fruit or sprinkles. Or you can make my Chocobites.