Sugars and syrups
Sugar is a mainstay in baking, but these days there are healthier options than simply white refined sugar.
Unrefined sugars: These are made from pure unrefined sugar cane. This means the colour and flavour that is naturally present in sugar cane has not been refined out to make the sugar pure white. The most recent addition to this range is unrefined icing sugar. I love its flavour and pale-caramel colour when made into icing, and so would now tend not to use white. Golden caster sugar is another favourite I use for baking . Important exceptions to this general recommendation are sugar for making caramel, for perfect white meringues, and to ensure a bright colour when making jams: in these cases you should use conventional white sugar.
When you are looking for a brown sugar the word unrefined is vitally important because some alternatives are just white sugar plus colouring. Demerara is a traditional unrefined sugar, produced so as to have larger and crunchier crystals than granulated sugar. Unrefined Dark Muscovado has plenty of natural molasses and a sticky texture; unrefined Light Muscovado is slightly less sticky and strong-tasting.
Golden granulated and golden caster sugar: What strikes you about these two is first their free-flowing quality, and secondly their colour, which has all the golden sparkle of champagne. The granulated is for the sugar bowl; use it for tea or for sprinkling over cereals. The caster is suitable for a sugar shaker when you need an extra bit of sweetness on fruit. It’s also an absolute star in meringues, and I now won’t make a sponge cake with anything else.
Demerara sugar: Here there is more ‘brown’ flavour, but still with a sparkling appearance. This sugar has a distinctly free-flowing, crunchy texture that’s good for sprinkling, but is also great for baking that needs a bit of extra crunchiness. If you like sweet coffee, then this is the best.
Light brown soft sugar: This is a moist, fine-grained sugar suitable for all home baking that requires a fudgy flavour but a light colour. Perfect for Dundee cake and light, rich fruit cakes.
Dark brown soft sugar: I use tons of this one, loving its moist, fine-grained texture and fudgy, dark-brown flavour. This sugar says gingerbread, ginger biscuits and flapjacks, and is a particular favourite of mine in pickles and chutneys.
Light muscovado sugar: This is the one to choose if you want to make your own toffee. It is fine-grained, moist and with shades of toffee flavour already present. I now use it for sticky toffee sauce and for caramel ice cream.Dark muscovado sugarNow we’re talking not just home baking but barbecues, marinades and Mauritian creole cooking – at Le Touessrok hotel in Mauritius I tasted it in a sweet, spicy sauce served with chicken. Also (provided you’re not Scottish), this is the one to sprinkle over the surface of hot porridge on a cold winter’s morning, then add some single cream and it marbles and melts together – it’s to die for.
Dark molasses sugar: Open the packet and take a long, deep inhalation and you are instantly in Mauritius. But it’s a bit of England, too – Christmas pudding, mincemeat and rich, dark fruit cakes. This also makes the best brandy snaps of all.
Molasses: This is the dark-ebony syrup that’s left over after sugar has been refined – in unrefined sugars the molasses is included in different degrees. It’s very concentrated, so only a little is needed. When I first started cooking you could buy dark (as opposed to golden) syrup. Now it’s no longer available, but a little molasses added to golden syrup gives the same effect. One important point, though: now that molasses is widely available, always use it in place of black treacle in recipes – more expensive, but lots more rich, luscious flavour.
Golden syrup: A very British favourite, something that should always be available for sauces, puddings, butterscotch,
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