Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sugar & Spice

The humble sugar has gone through a vigorous image re-engineering in recent years. When I started baking, aged 7 or so, there were only caster sugar, granulated sugar, icing sugar, and then light brown, dark brown and Demerara. These days, we are told by Delia, Nigella or Jamie that muscovado sugar is superior in taste, and golden icing sugar gives a toffee-ish taste which the plain white lacks. Suddenly, we need re-education on the pantry staple.

I am often asked by friends, new to baking, not only about the difference between caster sugar and granulated sugar but meaning of terms used by American food writers. In my baking course, I actually spend a good 15 minutes showing the various kinds of sugar and their particular functions to the novices.

The most common type of sugar used in cooking and baking is caster sugar (American: castor sugar). It has a fine texture which creams easily with butter and dissolve quickly into mixtures. It is also light enough to be whipped with egg whites, hence used in meringues.
Traditionally caster sugar comes in white but that is NOT the natural colour of sugar. Organic caster sugar is now available; the Argentine brand Chango provides an accessible organic choice at around 2 pesos per kg so there really is no justifiable reason to pick up that "Extra White" (more like extra bleached) bag of sugar made by the other Argentine brand, Ledesma.

Caster sugar is often confused with granulated sugar since both are commonly available at supermarkets. Granulated sugar has a coarser texture and is not suitable for baking as it doesn't dissolve easily. It is, however, sometimes used in cake decorating.

Icing sugar or confectioner's sugar (American) is called azúcar impalpable in Argentina. It is mainly used for cake decorating. Store it in a dry place and always sift before use as it tends to form lumps in storage. There are also coloured versions available at the supermarkets here; should you be inclined to eat something coloured like pastel bathroom tiles, you can.

Demerara sugar is the closest to azúcar rubia sin refinado here. It is coarser than caster or granulated sugar. It is often used in recipes where the sugar is dissolved over heat, the melting method. It adds moisture to the texture of cakes and puddings. Since the American "coffee sugar" is not always available outside of the U.S. one can substitute with Demerara sugar.

Soft brown sugars, light and dark, cream well and are often used in fruit cake recipes where rich flavour and colour are needed. Muscovado sugars are the best soft brown sugars as they are naturally unrefined and have excellent rich flavours and glorious colours. I have found soft light (actually dark blonde) brown sugar or azúcar rubia at Casa China in Barrio Chino, Belgrano.

At the same shop, they sell an organic dark brown sugar (like a dark muscovado which is chocolate in colour); it is called azúcar integral organica. Of course, this shop is also a treasure trove of spices such as whole cinnamon quills, Garam Masala, juniper berries, cardamom pods, cumin, turmeric...In addition, there is a good dried fruits and nuts section; you can boost your intake of the anti-aging selenium by stocking up on whole brazil nuts there.

Speaking of dark brown sugar, I have to make a serious cautionary note here: please do not be fooled by the Argentine azcúcar negra. It is widely available in supermarkets and liberally sprinkled on top of the local "black buns", sold in pretty much every panadería in this city. It is a dyed sugar; just plain sugar with colouring agent added. It gives no real flavour but chemicals; it is not the same as dark brown sugar, so please don't touch it if you can help it.

Diana, our mighty masseuse who treats her clients based on a combination of ancient Chinese therapeutic massage and herbal therapies, has been preaching to us, her growing number of disciples, benefits of various types of sugar.

She claims refined sugar has cooling properties (yin) so it is best used, with discretion, to balance coffee which is extremely heat inducing (yang). Unrefined sugar, on the other hand, gives the opposite benefits. "Red" sugar to us Chinese, or unrefined sugar, is best for nourishing the yin. It also aids digestion.

Guillermo, like most Argentines, has a sweet tooth. It is hard to escape that fate when many local doctors and nutritionists, not to mention parents and relatives, encourage sugar consumption from infancy. He was excited for a brief moment when Diana told us the benefits of sugar. However, she then specifically pointed out to him that he is already completely "destroyed" by over consumption throughout his life that these benefits don't apply in his case and he should cut down on all forms of sugar as much as possible.

I suppose the importance and benefits of moderation and delayed gratification have shown themselves to be relevant, even in the case of food. We are, more than ever, adamant that our children in future, would not be made innocent victims of the indulgent bis-abuelos (great-grandparents) and abeulos (grandparents).

I first came across this Northern-thai style pumpkin pudding at the Regent Hotel in Chiang Mai. It is a pumpkin pie, Oriental style. Don't worry about not finding the coconut sugar, just use light brown sugar instead. Pandang leaves is the Asian vanilla, if you can't find them, use a few drops of natural vanilla extract.

This is a simple and relatively healthy pudding, capturing the essence of the Asian attitude towards sweets.

900g baby Japanese pumpkin
5 eggs
80g coconut sugar
2 pandang leaves
1/2 cup coconut milk

Clean pumpkin. Cut the top off and scoop out the seeds.

Simmer coconut milk with coconut sugar and pandang leaves until the sugar is completely dissolved. Discard the leaves.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs. Stir in coconut milk. Skim off froth. Pour the mixture into the pumpkin.

Steam over high heat for 1 hr until the custard is set. Cool for 5 min. and then cut into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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