Food: The Sugar Club

Crunchy or smooth, brown and syrupy: pure crystals produce delicious puddings. Photograph by Jason Lowe

We take much of the food we eat for granted. We slice a loaf of bread and think nothing of the miller. We spread butter on our toast, but the dairy maid or man who made it might as well have been invented by AA Milne. Coffee is brewed from a dark and fragrant powder that is simply something someone puts into a vacuum- packed pouch and smells good when the seal is punctured. Tea is ... well ... tea's just tea, isn't it? And those sprinkly crystals spooned into that cuppa are sweet, and it's called sugar.

One never actually thinks of sugar as tasting of anything. The crunchy demerara is sort of pale brown and toasty-golden-syrupy, but hardly richly flavoured. And, furthermore, the one you may have always used was white sugar (once refined) before being turned brown again. You see, unrefined sugar is brown quite naturally. I have seen it. Mountains of it, sitting in sheds the area of double-size football pitches, in Mauritius. Watching the stuff conveyed along constantly dithering belts, pouring inexorably as suffocating showers into giant hangers, made me think of a particularly sweet death for a Bond villain.

We are a little unrefined when it comes to appreciating the qualities of good sugar. Who had heard of muscovado before the mid-1980s? But once it had entered our culinary language, bringing with it the first taste of how deeply flavoured unrefined sugar can be, interested cooks embraced it with glee.

With this stuff (perhaps now the most commonly used "real" brown sugar in the keenly tuned kitchen), one immediately notices a thick, firm and almost fudgy quality, as you press your fingers to the packet. And once you unfold the wrapping and spoon some out - it does not "pour" - you notice that slightly burnt smell of bonfire-night toffee (one stage further down the stickier route is molasses sugar, as black as the inside of a spent roman candle). The original dark muscovado can now also be found in a lighter form: rich and toffee-flavoured still, but less treacly. Perfect for sprinkling over your winter porridge.

All these sugars are made from pure sugar cane. Now, I don't know about you, but I become very excited when I see something manufactured from start to finish, raw material to end product (especially something as natural as sugar crystals, but then I would be as thrilled to see rattling Heinz tomato ketchup bottles being filled); the thought of sticks picked from a field ending up as the crunchy top of a perfect creme brulee fills me with wonder. I love the majesty of the operation, the science behind it and, in Mauritius, the fact that the waste material, bagasse, is then burned and used for energy.

Apart from the familiar crunchy brown demerara, naturally golden granulated and caster sugars are on the way to being as well-established as their lesser-tanned cousins. And now there is an unrefined golden icing sugar, too - especially nice for making meringues.

Golden meringues, makes about 12 meringues

The lovely thing I noticed about using this sugar, when making meringues, is how gently toffee-flavoured - and toffee-tinted - the mixture is even before it goes into the oven. The sugar itself looks pleasantly off-white; sort of pale-ivory-coloured. Do not be alarmed when you add the sugar to the egg whites: the light butterscotch look is as natural as the sugar itself. The method is the same as normal.

4 egg whites

pinch salt

225g golden icing sugar

a little softened butter

plain flour

Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/gas mark 1. Using a scrupulously clean mixing bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt until soft but able to hold a peak. Beat in half the sugar, a tablespoon at time, until glossy and stiff. Now fold in the rest of the sugar - sifted, and added in occasional shakes - using a large spatula, with authoritative scoops; the air must be contained, but the sugar does also need to be thoroughly mixed in.

Lightly grease a flat baking tray with the butter and sift over a spoonful of flour. Shake around a bit to disperse the flour in an even coating and then tap off the excess (the kitchen sink is the most contained area and affords the least mess).

Spoon out the meringue mixture in whichever form suits your mood and bake in the oven for about one-and-a-half hours. The point at which the meringues become pale golden and sport interesting looking cracked rivulets about their surface, is about right. Leave to cool for a few minutes, before removing from the baking tray. Store in an air-tight container until ready for use.

Coconut, banana and ginger pudding, serves 6

This seemed the ideal hot pudding, given that sugar country is filled with coconut palms and banana plants. It could be seen as a tropical version of Francis Coulson's famous Sticky Toffee Sponge, but switching the majestic sweep of Ullswater under mountain peaks for the gentle swish of ocean wave on raked white sand. The sweetest comparison. Almost sugary.

For the sauce

200g light muscovado sugar

75g unsalted butter

100ml double cream

100g creamed coconut

For the pudding

100ml coconut milk

100g chopped stem ginger

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

250g softened butter

100g golden caster sugar

100g muscovado sugar

150g self-raising flour

125g desiccated coconut

4 small eggs

3 small bananas, peeled and mashed with a fork

For the base

2-3 tbsp ginger syrup (from the jar of stem ginger)

3-4 extra bananas, peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal

To make the sauce, simply simmer the ingredients together for a few minutes, then whisk until syrupy and very smooth. Keep warm.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4. To make the pudding, first add the coconut milk to the chopped stem ginger and add the bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, ground ginger and vanilla extract. Stir together and leave to stand.

Cream together the butter, and sugars until light and fluffy. Sift the flour into a bowl and then tip in the desiccated coconut. Now add this mixture to the creamed butter and sugar alternately with the eggs, added one at a time. Now mix in the coconut milk/ginger mixture, the mashed bananas, and beat everything together most thoroughly.

Line the base of a baking tin (30cm x 25cm x 5cm deep) with a sheet of silicone paper, cut exactly to fit. Cover with the ginger syrup and arrange the sliced bananas on it, slightly over-lapping, to completely conceal the syrup underneath. Now carefully spoon over the pudding mixture so as not to dislodge the bananas, and bake in the oven for about one hour, or until the surface is springy to the touch. Leave to cool for a few minutes. Run a knife very gently around the edge of the sponge and turn out on to a flat tray. Gingerly remove the silicone paper. Cut into squares and serve in heated bowls, with the hot sauce poured over each serving.

Very sweet stewed apples with vanilla, serves 4

This is as simple as pudding gets, but none the worse for that. I have tried making the dish with russets, cox's, granny smiths and red delicious, too, but, I'm afraid, it's golden delicious apples that perform best for this one; all the others fluffed and broke up during the cooking process. Mind you, as these apples are stewed to within an inch of their lives, the fragrance of the variety will have been simmered away, smothered by the taste of the sugar.

250g golden granulated sugar

500ml water

700g to 800g golden delicious apples, peeled and lightly cored at each end

1 vanilla pod, broken into bits

Mix together the water and sugar in a pan - the correct size to hold the apples snugly in one layer - and bring to the boil. Put in the apples (the syrup should just cover them) and distribute the vanilla pod among them. Simmer gently, turning them from time to time, until the sugar, water and apple juices have become golden and syrupy, but not sticky. The apples should be a wonderful shade of pinky-gold, their flesh wondrously fondant and very, very sweet. The cooking time should not be much longer than about 50 minutes. Serve warm, with extra-cold pouring cream.


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