Raising Cane

Everything in this photo is sugar or, really!
Fred Petters

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

Duc Loi International Super Market
2429 Nicollet Ave. S.

El Burrito Mercado
175 Concord St.
St. Paul

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.

"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."

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!

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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El Burrito Mercado

175 Cesar Chavez St.
St. Paul, MN 55107


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