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Homemade Flavored Sugars (Are Sweet!)

Posted May 22 2009 10:31pm
With a shelf full of flavored salts , I had to balance the scales with some sweetness and make flavored sugars. They too are simple, delicious and handy to have on hand for flavoring coffee, tea or rimming cocktail glasses. And, of course, they're great for baking, decorating and any other occasion something sweet and special is called for.

Truly though, these beautiful little jars of flavorful sugars are only really sweet if you put some thought into where your sugar comes from and under what conditions it is grown, harvested and produced. There are few food products that have been, and sadly continue to be, so tied to brutality and environmental destruction the world over. Throughout the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South Asia and the Americas, there is a legacy of abuse in the sugar industry. A recent documentary, The Price of Sugar , illustrates a contemporary example of this in the Dominican Republic. Though it has a little more missionary zeal than I'm personally comfortable with, it's a useful starting place for understanding some of what goes on to create this taken for granted product. I used to work with a really talented Haitian cake decorator, who confirmed a lot of the details in this documentary and it's the kind of confirmation that makes your blood run cold.

Unfortunately, the conditions sugar production haven't yet seen the same rise in consumer consciousness as chocolate and coffee, but there are a variety of cooperatives and companies putting forth more ethical efforts and it's worth reading labels in the store or online to find out more ethical options available to you.

Environmentally, there's also little discussion of the dire impact cane sugar plantations have on water levels. Considering that even by conservative estimates (from the World Bank) we are soon to face severe global water shortages, the fact that sugar cane slurps up water like so many dry sponges, is something we should all be thinking about. For me, this means that I consume less sugar personally, resign myself to paying more what I do consumer and hold onto the abstract value added (increased human dignity and environmental consciousness) in that higher price tag. So when I do consume sugar, I want it to be really worth it, truly experienced. These flavored sugars have helped renew my consciousness of the pleasure to be had in a little of the sweet stuff.

In a close race, this sugar is the narrow winner for me. It's sweet, floral, roasty and toasty with dried vanilla and toasted barley. The barley is a summer staple for making ice tea and I buy it by the pound at a Korean market near my house. It's warm, earthy, woody and rich, delightfully refreshing when steeped in cold water and surprisingly at home with the floral bakery sweetness of vanilla bean. I always save my beans to get double, triple or more use out of them, even after they've been scraped. They can be used to make extracts or flavor liqueurs. Used beans can employed in the easiest of flavored sugars, created by the simple action of popping them into a sugar canister and letting them impart flavor to the crystals; and when they are dried out from the sugar, a quick grind produces vanilla bean powder, handy for flavoring baked goods or candies.

Though the barley vanilla bean sugar is great in coffee and I can't wait to use it in pursuit of a brittle or chewy caramel, I've been in rapturous adoration of it sprinkled on bread that's been lightly brushed with olive oil and then toasted. It reminds me of the cinnamon sugar toast of my youth, but better and much of the eye-rolling goodness of a fresh, warm doughnut. Just remember to sprinkle the sugar before toasting to get that slight caramelization of the sugar.

Barley Vanilla Bean Sugar

1 dried, scraped vanilla bean

2 tablespoons toasted barley

1 cup sugar

Cut the dried vanilla bean into half inch pieces, for easier grinding. Grind the barley and vanilla bean in spice mill or coffee grinder until fine. Stir into sugar and store in a sealed container.

I haven't gotten fully back to recreational baking yet, barring a couple necessary seasonal treats (lilac cupcakes, strawberry rhubarb shortcake, and an emergency pan of brownies), but when my hand no longer bothers me, one of the first things on my agenda is to make blueberry lemon cornmeal muffins and top them with these beautiful purple-blue crystals of lavender blueberry sugar. This would also be a gorgeous sprinkling over scones. Though I don't take sugar in my tea, a friend loved this sugar stirred into a white tea, and I imagine other sweet tea takers would also enjoy it in mellow, floral teas.

Blueberry Lavender Sugar

1/2 cup freeze dried blueberries

1 tablespoon dried culinary lavender

1 cup sugar

In a spice mill or coffee grinder, process blueberries and lavender until fine and powdery. Mix well with sugar and store in an air tight container.
Use the packet of desiccant from the freeze dried blueberries or pilfer one from an empty vitamin bottle to prevent clumping.

Rambutans are a remarkable fruit from Southeast Asia that are similar in texture to the lychee, which seems to have found more of a market in the U.S. than the poor old rambutan has. Perhaps this is because fresh it looks rather daunting with its whorls and spikes.

It is incredible delicious though and can sometimes be found fresh here, though they are quite expensive. More commonly, you'll find them canned in heavily sweetened syrups or, more recently, freeze dried at Trader Joes. Eaten as is I find freeze dried rambutan fairly to moderately repulsive, mostly because of the texture. Blech. However, ground up and stirred into sugars or other mixes, they impart some of the magic of their elusive flavor handily. A hint of rose brings out some of the floral tones nicely too and together they make a great complement to strawberries. I used a sprinkle of it on a sweet biscuit topped with rosewater rhubarb and strawberry compote and think it would also be great sprinkled across the lattice work of a strawberry rhubarb pie.

Rambutan Rose Sugar

5 freeze dried rambutans

1 tablespoon dried organic rose petals

1 cup sugar

In a spice mill or coffee grinder, process rambutan and rose petals until fine and powdery. Mix well with sugar and store in an air tight container.
Use the packet of desiccant from the freeze dried blueberries or pilfer one from an empty vitamin bottle to prevent clumping.

If you ever enjoy a cup of coffee or espresso, this is a must make sugar: spicy, warm, rich and decadent; it's incredibly delicious.

Mixed with a higher ratio of cocoa powder, it would also make a great chocolate drink. It's best with fresh ground spices, but pre-ground are good too.

Masala Chocolate Sugar

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon Vietnamese cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground anise or fennel seed

Mix all ingredients together well and store in an air tight container.

I've had a complete re-orientation to anise in the past year or so. Prior to my turn around on the matter, I wouldn't touch it with a stick, now I simply cannot get enough. In the inestimable words of Martin Gore: just like a rainbow, you know it sets me free. I love it in baked goods and all over fresh fruit, especially oranges and melon. So, of course, I'm all over this sugar, particularly when espresso is in the works. This is one of those sugars that is so very simple, you might just wonder why not add the sugar and spice separately? Of course, you could, but having it already assembled makes things much easier to dip into for a little teaspoon here or there.

Toasted Anise Sugar

2 tablespoons whole anise seed
1 cup sugar

Lightly toast anise seeds until fragrant in a dry skillet over low heat. Cool and grind to a fine powder. Mix with sugar and store in an air tight container.

For breakfast, I often enjoy unsweetened soy yogurt with a little fruit. Sometimes, when the fruit isn't very sweet, I want to add a little sweeter of some sort. Anise sugar on top of sour oranges in unsweetened soy yogurt makes my day.

Speaking of oranges, that very orange that was supremed for my morning meal had its zest donated to the cause of this rosemary orange sugar. Slightly sour and astringent, but floral, fruity, earthy and sweet, I love this sugar and look forward to using it for muffin tops and on shortcakes. It also serves nicely to flavorfully macerate fruit and would make a spectacular cocktail glass rimmer.

Oh, and it's good with chocolate. Who knew? I had an emergency craving for brownies and had to whip up this pan which I made with half rosemary orange sugar and turned into extravagant brownie sundaes topped with chocolate ice cream, orange segments, strawberry rose compote and chocolate shavings. Again, for baking purposes, one might wonder why it would be worth it to use a pre-flavored sugar instead of just adding in the additional elements fresh. I wondered too and wanted to try it out. My opinion is that it definitely had a more developed and deep flavor than it would have if we'd put fresh rosemary and orange zest into the brownie batter, probably the results of light toasting to dehydrate the orange and herb and the infusion of the sugar by these ingredients over time.

Rosemary Orange Sugar

1 large organic orange's worth of zest
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
1 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the zest, rosemary and sugar in a small food processor bowl and process until fine and ingredients are all well distributed. Spread the sugar out in a baking pan and toast for about 20 minutes or until zest and herb fragments all seem completely dry. Cool and store in an air tight container.

Enjoy and tune in next time for some recent extracts and infusions I've been making!
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