Raising Cane

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

"What people don't understand about corn syrup is that it's in processed food only partly for the sweetness," says McElrath. "It's also there because it accomplishes lots of goals of lubrication, insulation, and easing food through machinery." Since corn syrup is both cheaper than cane sugar and good for machine processing, it has become the de facto taste of sweet in America. Even though cane sugar tastes better.

Want proof? Consider all the Mexican restaurateurs who drive cane sugar-sweetened Mexican Coca-Cola all the way up here, and all the people who will pay twice as much for it. Consider that corn syrup appears in fancy restaurant kitchens only when pecan pies are being baked. Consider the immigrant markets that stock a variety of cane sugars, for people who would just as soon give up their spice racks as abandon their good sugars.

I found those Demerara sugars, and the one from Mauritius, at Guy-Am in north Minneapolis, a store that specializes in Caribbean and Guyanan imports. Owner Sookdeo Somaiah grew up with his father and brother cutting sugar cane in the fields, and even with that intimate knowledge of a backbreaking industry, loves cane sugar. "We use it for everything; for baking, Guyana sugar is the best sugar in the world," he told me, shrugging, when I came in and bought what I thought was a ridiculous amount of sugar. "Most people come in, see the Guyana sugar and buy three bags. It's hard to find. You come back on the weekend, we'll have fresh sugarcane."

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

I told him that in the summertime I've had fresh sugarcane drinks at Quang Deli in south Minneapolis, where they roll the cane through a kind of toothed press, extracting the juice. He looked at me as if I had just explained my preference for mending clothes with a staple gun. "That's the lazy way," he said, rolling his eyes. "You come here and we teach you to do it the right way."

From there I headed to El Burrito Mercado, where I found that linen-colored Mexican sugar, as well as C&H "Baker's Sugar," a superfine all-cane sugar made without any anti-caking agents in it. This is the perfect sugar for iced tea, horchata, or any time you need to dissolve sugar in something that's cold. I got a couple of wonderful tacos from the cafeteria line, sat in the window, and brushed up on my copy of Sidney Mintz's Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, which explains the relationship between sugar and power. I learned a lot.

I learned, among other things, how "pre-sapiens hominids" have been after honey since before we even got our current skull shape; how Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing during World War II, establishing an economic advantage that has lasted to this day; and how the desk workers in industrializing England were self-subjugated by addiction to sugary tea and respectability. As I, personally, am never to be found at my desk without a cup of sugary tea, I immediately made some anti-desk-enslavement resolutions: first, no more reading.

Second, I headed to Duc Loi, the very large Southeast Asian mega-market that opened recently on Nicollet Avenue. They have a whole sugar and flour aisle at Duc Loi, which is where I found all of the palm sugar, gourd sugar, and other sugars listed above, as well as interesting sticks of sugar called "brown candy" that seems to be a darker form of palm sugar.

Third, I started phoning up chefs who I know think deeply about sugar. I talked to Patrick Bernet, easily Minnesota's foremost sugar artist, and owner of Patrick's Bakery. The day I called him Bernet was getting ready to move an enormous sugar castle he had built for a New York pastry competition into his newest bakery, deep inside the big Bachman's on Lyndale. "Oh, Dara," said Bernet, "I could talk to you about sugar for two days!" And then he did. In short, please know that at any given time Bernet has at least half a dozen forms of sugar on hand, some for spinning into shapes, some for pulling into icing, and several to cook with. Part of the reason you're unlikely to ever make a chocolate mousse as good as Patrick Bernet's is that he uses three sorts of sugar in there.

Speaking of Patrick Bernet's chocolate mousse, I had to go down to the new Bachman's location. Incredible! Off to one side of the big Bachman's greenhouse is a fully functioning Patrick's Bakery, with all the breads, all the pastries, all the coffees, quiches, cookies, and magic of the regular Patrick's. But then you can take your treats outside, which is actually inside, and sit beneath a big, cheery yellow canvas umbrella and eat with real silverware from china plates and look at all the Bachman's flowers piled everywhere. This is a spectacular place to bring your grandma, your niece, your book. The air is so sweet and moist, and the sandwiches, all on homemade bread, are delicious. There's a tomato and fresh mozzarella sandwich with pesto on bread full of salty green olives. There's a chicken sandwich with roasted red peppers and fresh leaves of lettuce on bread bursting with walnuts and raisins. And, of course, there are pastries. It's a dream come true. Like the Como Conservatory, with chocolate mousse!

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