If a plain scone is the little black dress of the breakfast baking closet, then specialty sugars are the Chanel, Hermès and Cartier. Waiting in the wings, they swoop in at the last moment and sprinkle on that special little sparkle that takes your baking from drab to fab.
Let's see how to turn your muffins and scones from the morning meal to Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the grains of what we call table sugar. Tiny and fine, they add sweetness to our everyday lives. White granulated sugar is the cotton of our lives, so to speak. It forms the undergarments of our cakes, pies and cookies, providing structure, taste and that golden brown deliciousness to baked goods that wraps around us like our favorite blankie.
Table sugar may be the cotton, but in the world of sugar there is a whole host of other "fabrics" to play with. Known as specialty sugars collectively, these are the bright buttons, shiny snaps, and feather boas for your baked goods. A bit of bling-bling, a dash of haberdashery if you will, these are the pearls for the little black dress that's your favorite basic recipe.
By now I'm sure you've figured out that I'm a Project Runway junkie, so allow me if you will to play Tim Gunn a little longer as we take an outing to the Mood Fabrics of the baking world, aka The Baker's Catalogue. For years now our catalogue has been the place to source specialty sugars of all kinds. Let's take a trip though the cyber-aisles and see what we can find to add that touch of pizzazz to our outfit du jour.
Let's start with the big 4. These are the most popular specialty sugars we carry and also the ones about which we receive the most questions. I've labeled them with item numbers to help you find them as you shop, with the exception of the raw sugar. More on that later. Let's take a closer look.
Item 2232, coarse white sugar. This sugar is part of our decorator sugars collection, along with 8 vibrant rainbow colors. The opaque crystals are in flat rectangle shapes rather than boulder or diamond shapes; this sugar is great for sugar cookies, iced cookies and topping muffins.
Item 1410, Swedish pearl sugar. Small beads of pure white, Swedish pearl sugar is the baby cousin to Belgian pearl sugar, the famed ingredient in Liege waffles. Used atop deeply colored pumpkin or gingerbread muffins, pearl sugar really makes a statement. Its craggy look is complemented by great crunch. Of all the sugars, I'd say this one makes folks sit up and take notice of otherwise quiet pastries.
Raw sugar, aka Demerara sugar, is golden blonde in color and has a very faint molasses flavor to it. Not to be confused with brown sugar, it's a dry sugar with distinct crystals and less moisture. The crystals tend to be smaller than sparkling sugars. and more irregular in shape; but the golden hue is a showstopper atop a sweet bread or roll. Turbinado sugar is another type of raw sugar, one that's been steam-cleaned. Raw sugars are readily available in many grocery stores.
Item 1240, sparkling white sugar. If I had to pick one sugar as Miss Popularity, I'd say the honor would go to this classy sugar. Clear, large, flat crystals catch and reflect the light like sequins on a circus star's costume, and have everyone's attention from minute one. How much do we love sparkling white sugar in the test kitchen? Let's just say that we don't have just a container at a work station; we have a 4-quart bin at the ready.
Scones, muffins, sweet breads, pie crusts, cookies, hardly a sweet good passes through our doors without a generous handful of our favorite topping. The satisfying crunch in each bite is as alluring as a handkerchief hemline, and always keeps us coming back for more.
Now that we've looked at each sugar up close, here's how they compare side by side. The pencil is for scale; you can see that while each is larger than table sugar, they have their own unique sizes and shapes. The sugars are still in their original order, so the sugar on the far left is the coarse white and the sugar on the far right is the sparkling white. When viewed side by side it is harder to tell them apart, but when viewed next to the other sugars, it is a little easier to see the different in clarity and sparkle.
Slipping into my Nina Garcia persona, I'll go ahead and say it. "Sure, it looks good on the runway, but how does it work in the real world?"
Hands down, my favorite muffin is our Pumpkin Spice muffin mix. I try to keep a box on hand all throughout the fall and winter, and I do use specialty sugars to jazz the muffins up for the family and friends.
First up, the coarse white sugar. To keep things even, I used a half teaspoon measure of each different sugar on these muffins. No playing favorite for this judge.
Next up, pearl sugar. See what I mean about the brilliant contrast between the dark muffin and the pure white sugar?
While I adore it on deep-dark baked goods, for me pearl sugar is a must have on my braided lemon bread, too. It just gives it POP.
Raw sugar, same muffin. Tone on tone never looked better.
Last but not least, sparkling white sugar. The clarity of the sugar allows it to disappear into the raw batter, but after baking the sparkle will really show to the fullest.
Remind me never to write another blog when I haven't had breakfast yet. I could start at the top and eat my way around this circle in 5 minutes flat.
For those of you with a runway scorecard, you'll see that two surprise outfits have shown up in the final collection. For those who don't like the crunch of coarse sugars, powdered sugar can gild the lily instead. Standard confectioners' sugar works fine on cooled baked goods, but if you want that drift of white on a warm muffin to stay white and not melt away, our Snow White Non-Melting Sugar is the way to go. It has a slightly fluffier texture to it, and really provides excellent coverage with just a tap of the sifter.
Here's a closer look at the Snow White Non-Melting (left) and regular confectioners' sugar (right). You can see that the Snow White provides a more even coating, as the same amount of sugar was used on each piece and the same sifter as well.
Well, I still haven't had breakfast yet, so I'll head off to my workroom to create my masterpiece. I'll leave you with this culinary equivalent of the color wheel – the sugar wheel. I truly hope this collection helps you understand, appreciate and be inspired by specialty sugars. They do add that finishing touch to your baked goods and make you today's top designer of kitchen creations. Happy baking!
P.S. I know the designers don't often share their secrets with each other, but we'd love to hear about your favorite ways to use specialty sugars, or how you'd like to use them in the future. Let's make it work!