Pleasure Hunting / The Faculty of Sugar Sciences

The latest gourmet trend – handmade sweets steeped in ancient traditions – is here, just in time for the holiday season.

Oh, sweet memories from the sugar cities. In Bruges, once a flourishing center of commerce in spices and sugar, we saw dozens of children and adults pressed against a glass window, watching a show-off confection artist stretch and twist colored ribbons of sugar. In the alleys of Istanbul’s fish market − a sultan once ordered a special kitchen for sugar creations built in his palace in this city − we watched an elderly creator of sweets scooping various types of jams and sugared fruits from a row of antique silver urns.

And in Paris, where monarchs became addicted to eating sweets until all their teeth fell out, a sour-faced woman reluctantly agreed to sell some of her goods to special individuals. Here was revealed to us showcases full of choice sweet treasures from all over France.

Ronit Tsin-Karsenti dreams that some day she will also open a marvelous candy store from whose jars magical sugar products will emerge. Meanwhile she stands at the Herzliya farmers’ market and the Dizengoff Center food fair, and sells her hand-made sweets: a miniature bonbon made of marzipan and walnuts that was immersed for 24 hours in sugar water; chocolate fudge with nuts; clouds of strawberry-raspberry or violet-flavored marshmallow; sugared orange peels, Berlingot candies ‏(hard candies cut into the shape of a pyramid‏); caramel candies and lollipops; rahat locum ‏(Turkish delight‏) dusted with powdered sugar; Montelimar-style or pistachio nougat.

Every week, different types of sweets are subtracted from the list or added to it, the product of diligent experiments in her home kitchen. Sometimes the young confectionary artist carefully follows classic recipes, sometimes she creates new combinations of flavors and sweets. Even if the experiments are not always successful, it’s hard to miss her great love for the ancient craft of creating sugar treats.

Until recently, Tsin-Karsenti was a journalist, and now she is a candy-maker. In the recent past she wrote for the daily Maariv and the daily business newspaper Calcalist. When she realized that there was a reason why she had devoted days and nights to getting an interview with the world’s most famous chef and baker, the prince of macaroons, Pierre Herme, and to in-depth research on the worldwide pursuit of the perfect dessert, she decided to follow her own inclinations.

She admits that in this profession, as in her former one, it is hard to make a living in Israel these days. There is no tradition. Small boutique artists, not only in the field of sweets, find it difficult to find a balance between the aspiration to excellence and the demands of the small market; and the country’s leaders pile up almost impossible difficulties in the path of small food producers. For now her husband’s work in high-tech is making it financially feasible, and all the rest is supported by endless optimism and joy.

Sherry Ansky, one of the most important food journalists in the country, left journalism to open a herring stall ‏(from which she derived great pleasure and happiness‏); critic Rogel Alpher wrote this week about his personal agent’s recommendation that he sell roast chicken in the absence of a demand for journalistic talent. Tsin-Karsenti decided on a career change before investing her best years in journalism. The path to expertise in her new profession passed through courses in Paris, an impressive collection of books on gastronomy and frequent trips to the sugar cities of the world for raw materials and know-how.

Early sweetness

The people of the ancient world prepared sweets based on honey, even before discovering the wonders of sugar produced from sugar cane ‏(and later from sugar beets too‏).

Sugar cane, and the technique of producing sugar, went on a fascinating journey over thousands of years from India to China, via ancient Persia and the Middle East, and from there to Europe and the New World. Only in the modern industrial world did sugar become a product for the masses rather than a luxury, and until the late 17th century there was a bitter debate between the guilds of food producers and the those of pharmacists and chemists over the right to produce sugar products, which were considered a valuable medicine.

It is difficult to trace the historical sources of sweets that are now common all over the world, as in the case of other generic foods that originated in various places at the same time. Many of the differences between them are due to the temperature at which the sugar is heated and the agents of flavor and texture that are added to the cooking process.

Dragees ‏(sugared almonds‏) − the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans used to coat seeds, nuts and fresh fruits in honey. This method of preservation soon turned into a rare and desirable delicacy. In the late medieval period nuts and various spices, this time dipped and preserved in sugar, returned to the table of the wealthy and powerful in Europe, who served them to guests at the end of the festive meal as an aid to proper digestion. 

After gorging on foods that usually had not been kept cool, they were given a drageoir − a box containing pine nuts, almonds, and anise or ginger seeds dipped in hot sugar syrup that had hardened.

Sugared almonds were also given as a gift at the end of baptism and coronation ceremonies, and at official receptions. We still preserve a reminder of this ancient custom, and of the ancestors of modern candies, in the custom of distributing bags of dragees and other types of sweets at the end of festive occasions.

Candied orange peels − citrus peels cooked in sugar syrup until they soften, rolled in sugar crystals and sometimes dipped in hot chocolate. In the Christian world the delicacy is considered a traditional Christmas sweet.

Candied apples − fresh apples dipped in hot sugar syrup and impaled on a wooden stick to make them easier to eat were sold at the famous medieval carnivals in Europe, and became a common Halloween treat. Here we customarily eat them on Rosh Hashana ‏(an apple dipped in honey is one of the traditional symbols of the holiday according to Jewish tradition‏) and on Simhat Torah, as a symbol of the sweetness of the Torah. ‏(See recipe on following page.‏)

• Pate de fruits − another of the ancient sweets originating in the desire to preserve fresh fruits for the winter. Fresh fruits cooked with honey, as the people of the ancient world learned by trial and error, were preserved for a long time thanks to pectin, a sugar found in the cell walls of fruits. The classic diamond-shaped French sweets, which first appeared in writings in the Auvergne 
region in the 16th century, are made of a paste of natural fruits, cooked with sugar and pectin and coated with sugar crystals. The use of pectin gives a fruity taste and creates a more concentrated texture than in sweets with a gelatin base.

Nougat − The ancient Roman recipe for noctum contains honey, nuts and egg white. In the modern recipe, as opposed to the ancient one in the book by Apicius, the honey is replaced by sugar and the concentrated-sticky texture is achieved by beating egg whites and hot sugar syrup. The south of France, still the world nougat center, is thought to be the region where the present-day recipe originated, around the 16th century. Models of cities or literary scenes made of nougat were especially popular at weddings of the nobility during that period.

Marshmallow − The source of the name is a plant whose roots were used to prepare the popular sweet until the early 20th century. In the modern period the vegetable concentrate was replaced with gelatin, and the spongy, airy texture is achieved by vigorously beating the hot sugar syrup with gelatin. French confectioners sell delicate clouds of marshmallow in an array of flavors and colors. In the United States, commercially made marshmallows − skewered and roasted over a bonfire, or as an essential ingredient in recipes for cakes and other baked goods − have become a prominent feature of American cuisine. 

• Fudge − a semi-solid sweet produced by cooking sugar with milk and cream. The smooth, rich texture is the result of beating the mixture after it cools. Chocolate is the most common flavoring, and some claim that the origin of fudge, or at least the first written record of it, is in the prestigious New England women’s colleges in the 19th century.‏ (See recipe on following page‏.)

Hard candies − hot sugar syrup, without egg whites or fat, is stretched, shaped and molded into candies in a variety of colors, flavors and shapes. The art of preparing hard candies was common in the Middle East, whose inhabitants were the ones who bequeathed it to the Europeans around the seventh and eighth centuries, parallel to the spread of the sugar refining industry. ‏(See recipe on following page.‏)

• Calissons − the famous Provencal sweet made of marzipan ‏(a paste of almonds and sugar‏), sugared fruits and citrus blossom water, it appears in the writings of Madame de Sevigne.

Make your own candy

An easily attainable list of equipment and ingredients that will make the preparation of sweets a simple, pleasant experience, even for beginners.

• Sugar thermometer − the most essential device in the confectioners’ kitchen. This is a very precise thermometer that measures especially high temperatures, to determine at what point the sugar is transformed from syrup into toffee or caramel. Such thermometers are widely available where cooking and baking utensils are sold, and are relatively inexpensive.

• Double boiler − although sugar melts at a relatively high temperature, it also burns quickly and becomes bitter. When working at high, precise temperatures, the double boiler will help provide better control and a uniform distribution of heat.

• Heat-resistant spatula − the most frequent mishap in making caramel is crystallization of the sugar and destruction of its flexible and uniform texture. The problem usually stems from a miniscule amount of foreign matter that adhered to a wooden spoon, for example, or dry crystals that accumulate on the sides of the pot during the boiling process. A flexible silicon spatula that is resistant to high heat will do the job easily and efficiently − both the stirring and the removal of the hardening crust on the sides of the pot.

• Silicon utensils − Silicon is the greatest confectioners’ discovery of the past decade. There is probably no kitchen utensil today that is not made of this material, which is heat resistant and easy to use. ‏(Along with the advantages there are also clear disadvantages, such as problems in transferring heat and creating a crisp crust for bread and cakes.‏) They are particularly convenient when working with sugar, since the caramel doesn’t stick to them. Pans will be easy to clean and guarantee excellent results.

• Corn syrup/glucose − These thick syrups are similar in structure to white sugar, but differ from it in that they don’t crystallize during the preparation of caramel, and therefore are preferred in the manufacture of jams and creams. They also contribute to the viscosity of the final product and ensure a longer shelf life. Available at all spice stores and in specialized baking goods stores.