Raising Cane

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

I tried that mousse in its most glorious form, inside Patrick's Feuillantine Pralinée Chocolate Cake ($4.95) with its satiny mouth-feel, its thunderous chocolateness, its whimsical gold-bedecked top--ah, dessert. Ah, sugar. It's more technical than I have room for in this story, but in various stages of his mousse Patrick uses regular granulated sugar, pure liquid glucose, and then a sugar that's even sweeter than liquid glucose, called Trimoline (it's an inverted sugar, which has been reduced from its complex form, sucrose, to glucose and fructose). All of this means a more velvety texture and more intense taste because of skillful manipulation of sugar.

One of the things I wanted to do in this series, besides improving my own understanding of these basic building blocks of food, was to provide a few quick tips on how to get a little chef-trick jazz into your everyday cooking repertoire. For this I called up J.P. Samuelson, the chef and owner of j.P. American Bistro. Samuelson, whose restaurant is always a source of fascinating ideas about food, honed his knowledge about sugars working in New York at the new Caribbean restaurant Tropica.

"Sugar is definitely one of those hidden secrets that chefs use a lot that other people don't," says Samuelson. "For instance, in a vinaigrette we'll use sugar to tone down the acid. For me, I'll take the onion, garlic, shallot, whatever I'm using in the vinaigrette and put a little salt and sugar on it, and let it sit like that in the bowl for 10 minutes. Once I see the oniony liquid start to seep out, I'll add the vinegar to it. The classic vinaigrette ratio is four to one, or five to one oil to vinegar. I like to use less, and if you use sugar it tempers your vinegar, so you don't need so much oil. This means that our vinaigrette is more like two to one, and the greens are coated, but not weighed down."

Chefs use sugar for confit, for gravlax, in marinades, and in lots of instances where they're trying to concentrate the flavor of fish or meats, notes Samuelson. "I'm not a sugar person, I'm a savory person. Still, I'm amazed when I get young cooks in here who are shocked to see you throw some sugar in the pan. What is ketchup in America except a way to add sugar and salt to meat? And for another thing, it's very difficult to use heat if you don't know how to use sugar, they're two sides of the same idea.

"For instance, a lot of people say they hate sweet wine. But one of the best food-wine pairings I've ever had in my life was a fiery lobster curry at Vong paired with a sweet Riesling. The Riesling cut through the fire and gave the other seasonings latitude to play out." The fire holds the other spices in the curry in check, the Riesling holds that in check, the circle of life continues.

In his kitchen right now, Samuelson guesses he has six kinds of sugar. He recently used some Demerara for a blood orange marmalade, uses palm sugar for his famous Thai-influenced calamari dipping sauce, and has been using that viscous, gelatinously textured palm sugar for a curry as well. "For me, while palm sugar is quite sweet, it's not forward," he says. "It's got more depth of flavor, and even though it can be a pain to work with, it's worth it, especially for how the viscosity helps sauces." Meanwhile, his pastry chef has been finishing the restaurant's crème brûlée with large-grained Turbinado sugar, which melts more quickly and evenly.

If you order that crème brûlée with a cup of coffee, the sugar that comes in the bowl with it will be a rough-hewn lump of Demerara. "When we opened the restaurant we served both white sugar and the Demerara," says Samuelson. "Then one day we ran out of the white stuff. I figured people would scream and holler, but that was a couple of months ago, and no one's said anything yet. I guess we're getting more European."

Or, more Caribbean, South American, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and, sometimes, in the case of mousse, inverted.

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