Raising Cane

If C&H is the only sugar in your kitchen cabinets, you've got some sweet surprises in store

Guy-Am West Indian Groceries & Videos
4539 Lyndale Ave. N.
Minneapolis
612.522.9222

Duc Loi International Super Market
2429 Nicollet Ave. S.
Minneapolis
612.870.8684

Everything in this photo is sugar or chocolate...no, really!
Fred Petters
Everything in this photo is sugar or chocolate...no, really!

El Burrito Mercado
175 Concord St.
St. Paul
651.227.2192

I write to you today surrounded by sugar. Mexican Zulka brand cane sugar the color of linen. Chinese rock sugar in lumps the size of plums. Chinese yellow crystal sugar, which looks like a bag of yellow quartz, in lumps ranging from the size of filberts to the size of almonds, and--did I mention they look like rocks? They look exactly, exactly like rocks, with little fissures of a darker brown running through them, with the general roundness

that comes from being a rock around other rocks. Look at it in your hand, it's a rock. Put it in your mouth, it's sugar. Take it out again, it's definitely a rock. Amazing. The package has a little banner that explains the phenomenon: "It's your buddy!!" And how.

But I digress.

I also have before me two kinds of true Demerara sugar, which comes from the coast of Guyana, and is one of the only sugars that has ever had a name brand synonymous with quality, the way oysters from Cape Cod, wheat from the Red River Valley, or Italian tomatoes from San Marzano have. One of these Demerara sugars is brown and sparkling like beach sand, the other is from the Ogle estate on the east of the Demerara and has a unique scent, something between burnt orange peels, ocean spray, and gingersnaps. I have a wonderful sugar from the island of Mauritius, which sits in the warm ocean between Madagascar and Australia. This sugar is misleadingly branded Demerara Gold, but I think would do better if it were called Mauritius Gold, which would let people know that it has a unique toast-and-cinnamon character.

I have palm sugar (also called "jaggery") from Thailand, which seems like a halfway point between beeswax and sugar. It is pale yellow, and arrives molded in hard cakes that slice apart into gelatinous pieces.

Finally, I have the sugars that scare me. I don't know what to make of them at all. One of them is, according to the label--which I only half believe--made of "preserved wax gourd." It comes from Taiwan. It's greenish black, comes in a cake as hard as limestone, and smells like burnt toast and coffee. If you spend half an hour working it with a vegetable peeler and eventually take it into the basement and wail on it with a crowbar, you'll get small pieces of sugar that have that elusive sort of caramelized meaty taste that we all seek out in flame-grilled burgers or carefully made boeuf bourguignon. If you put some of it in your tea, it will taste like you just made your tea on a well-used diner grill.

In short, somewhere there is a six-year-old who believes that what grown-ups do is head into their offices, turn on the computer, shut the door, and open six bags of sugar. I am living that dream.

You could, too. You should, if you cook. Last night I dissolved some palm sugar into a vinaigrette, and it made the oil and lemon juice into a gorgeously emulsified silk which looked for all the world like a raw egg yolk. A vegan, cholesterol-free, leave-it-out-on-the-picnic-table-all-day-without-fear egg yolk! It coated the greens beautifully.

And it's a cheap thing to experiment with. I bought about 20 kinds of sugar for this story, and the most expensive one I found was about $3 for a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds; many others cost something like 89 cents a pound. That's a darn sight cheaper than the artisanal salts I wrote about a few weeks ago, as part of this series in which I try to explore some of the most basic qualities of food, and how chefs manipulate them.

No one has done more manipulating of sugar than chocolatier B.T. McElrath, the local chef whose little local artisanal chocolate company has won the most important awards a chocolatier can win and whose chocolates and toffees are now distributed nationally. "Sweet is definitely a vast rainbow of tastes," explained McElrath, when I asked him about the different faces of sugar. "Its role in food is very complex, from a gastronomic standpoint, a scientific standpoint, and from an emotional standpoint. Certain sweet tastes, like that first chocolate chip cookie you have, will affect you almost primordially; a little bell goes off and that taste will be with you forever. On the other side of things, even when there's no aggressive taste of sweetness, sugar is pivotal in experiences of all kinds of flavor. Caramelize anything and it's better, which is why you sauté vegetables for soup. Compare a boiled potato to a nice crispy fry, and what you're really talking about is sugar--in the fry, the starch is converted to sugar and caramelized. The nice crispy coating on a roast, that's sugar too. It's not added sugar, but the point of a lot of cooking is to draw out the essential sugar within the ingredient at hand."

Even when the ingredient at hand is essentially sugar. In the case of his toffees, his subtle, elegant, devastating toffees, McElrath has made a national splash just by honing the best qualities of pure cane sugar (never cheaper beet-derived sugar), which he cooks up with butter. I've written about McElrath's amazing toffees before, but I never knew that McElrath attributes much of the delirium with which people greet this candy to the vast flavor difference between the taste of cane sugar and the ubiquitous taste of corn syrup.

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