Monday, September 10, 2012

"So Sugar Is Sweet, So So Are You" – Part 1

Inserting Preface: 

Let's set the record straight: I am a Marxist through-and-through. A Groucho Marxist, that is. The title of this post comes from a Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers. I'm sure there are a couple of readers who can tell me the scene I'm quoting. (It's here, 1:10 into the clip, for the many who won't know what the heck I'm talking about). Not that the Marx Brothers have anything to do with this post, other than the use of the word "sugar" mind you. I really just wanted an excuse to link to that clip! (By the way, remind me to tell you about the time I was cast as Chico Marx in a friend's video festival entry in Dallas.)

Preface hereby ends.

Now let's talk about sugar. I've been a fan of sugar longer than I have been a fan of the Marx Brothers (but not by much). Maybe for about fifty years...but who's counting? More specifically, though, sugar to put into my coffee has become something of a growing obsession (there's that word again) for some time now. As I sipped my way through my early coffee life I was aware of a few ways to sweeten my daily cuppa: white sugar, brown sugar and sugar in the raw. Like everyone else I knew, I would "liberate", for future use, many packets of Sugar In The Raw from various and sundry restaurants I patronized. This was long before they started selling it in grocery stores.

My true sugar love, though, is the concept of sugar cubes: compact, uniform shapes of sugar that you just pick up and plop into your cup with no muss and no fuss. For the longest time only processed, white sugar came in cubes, which always seemed a shame to me because the taste of brown and raw sugar in coffee makes me very happy. For always wished I could combine the taste of raw or brown sugar with the geometric perfection and ease of use of white sugar cubes.

The summer of 1984 proved a watershed for me. That was the summer I spent in Munich, Germany, working as a freelance writer and trying to figure out what my life was supposed to be. I had absolutely no success with the latter but the experience did wonders for my appreciation of coffee and introduced me to this:

"Parrot Sugar," in plain parlance.
Brown sugar taste in a cube-like shape? It gave me a whole new appreciation for the question of how many lumps I'd like in my coffee. (Actually, this taught me everything I needed to know about lumps and coffee – 4:36 into the clip.) All kidding aside, I was in heaven for four months while I was in Germany. Coming back to Texas, though, put me in coffee sugar purgatory, if not hell, because La Perruche was nowhere to be obtained.

Many years passed and I eventually moved to New York, where it didn't take long for me to happen upon several sources for this wondrous product. It also didn't take long for me to figure out that the cost of having it on a regular basis would wreck my budget for sure. Back then it was around $8 and change for a pound. Now it's $14! These days there are similar brands but the prices don't vary much. This means that for the last fifteen or so years I've only had my favorite sugar a relative handful of times. Darn my inability to win the lottery or have generous, rich relatives!

At this point you're probably wondering what this has to do with the baking theme of this blog. Hang in there, sweethearts.

A few years ago I got a bee in my bonnet: why couldn't I make my own brown sugar cubes? It couldn't be that difficult because my brown sugar is always turning itself into bricks while my back is turned anyway. You know what I'm talking about, right? You're baking cookies or a flourless chocolate torte or something. You have a full box of brown sugar up in the cabinet so you grab it, ready to measure it out, but your spoon hits a block of granite instead. It almost doesn't matter when you bought it, if it's been opened once, it's turned itself into stone.

Until you want it to turn to stone, that is. I bought a couple of plastic mini ice cube trays, loaded them up and set them aside to dry out the sugar. It never did. Even after a couple of weeks the sugar remained just as moist and ready for baking use. Talk about messing with your mind! Granted, I could have just used an ice pick or some other chisel-like tool to break up an already solidified brick of brown sugar, and in truth I've done that upon an occasion or two, but that doesn't give me the relative size uniformity I want. One would rather not have to guess how much sugar is going into one's coffee, wouldn't one?

So, how to solve that problem? Heat. Oven heat. And plenty of it. (See? I told you the oven would come into play at some point. Oh, ye of little faith in my obsessions.) That meant I needed to find something that could withstand said heat. Fortunately I didn't have to look any farther than my baking supplies to find my mini cookie cutters and draft them into service.

Too cute!
It was such simple idea! Pack the cutters with sugar.

Filled with sugar and awaiting the oven.
Bake them enough to dry and harden the sugar.  Remove the cool shaped sugar from the cutters. Um. Remove the cool shaped sugar from the cutters. And that's the part that just didn't work out like I planned it. It was only with significant effort that I was able to remove the sugar from the cutters. I'd say about half of what I made was usable.

Magically delicious! But what a chore to remove from the molds!
They looked cool but dang it, that particular process was way too much work. Ease of use, remember? That should cover the making as well as the using.

As Wyle E. Coyote once said: back to the old drawing board.

Quick aside: I'm a little embarrassed to say that I actually didn't have any trouble removing the batch of shapes I made to illustrate the process. Turns out the bigger problem I was having back then was using dark brown sugar, which has more molasses to harden stick to the metal than the light brown sugar. Oh, well. You live and learn. 

Quick aside ends.

End Part 1

Currently listening to: Deep Forest, "Night Village"



  1. Replies
    1. Me, too, you. I'm liking what you're doing with your blog, though! So happy for you and your art space!

  2. I loved the ones that you sent me! More than once I would eat one like candy. Remember sneaking sugar @ Gorman St. as children? lol! Too poor to afford candy some times...those weren't the days!
    Love you Big Brudda! Cool music by the by.

    1. Oh, don't get me started on what we used to do to "enhance" candy experiences back then, Little Sister! lol!

      Glad you like the Deep Forest track.