Sugar and Spice

Have you ever made vanilla sugar? You don’t see many recipes call for it. Instead you usually have to adjust to make it happen.

Vanilla sugar is made by packing a vanilla bean in sugar and letting it set for a while. Osmosis moves the chemicals from the bean to the sugar, infusing the sugar with the odor and taste of vanilla. It also just happens to lightly candy the bean. Now you can speed this up by splitting the bean before putting it in, but be aware you’ll now get the black specks irretrievably mixed with the sugar. Depending on what you’re making that might not be acceptable. Tastewise no big deal, but sometimes the black can be distracting.

Anyway, you have two controls over the intensity: time and quantity. The more sugar you use in proportion to bean, the less intensity per unit of time. The longer it “steeps” the more intensity regardless of quantity. Of course, eventually you’ve extracted all the essentials from the bean regardless of time or quantity, and if you continue past that point what you’ve got will evaporate away. Entropy lives, doncha know.

Now several people know about vanilla sugar, but they don’t consider the next step. You can do this with pretty much any spice. Take ginger, for example.

The classic way to make candied ginger is to steep it in a warm simple syrup (sugar and water at sugar’s saturation point) for a few hours, reheating the syrup and recovering the ginger with it every day or so till the ginger’s fully preserved.

Oh, yes, I meant to say preserved. I’ve mentioned it before, but sugar-packing, and particularly sugar infusion, is as effective at preservation as drying and salting or salt-packing. It candies what you’re preserving, of course, but… yum.

Anyway, due to the nature of sugar you don’t have to go to the syrup stage. Instead you CAN just peel your ginger and cut it into thin, thin slices and then sugar it. Lay down a think layer of sugar, lay down the ginger slices, cover with sugar, repeat if necessary till all the ginger is down and covered. Every day or so check to see if you need to add some sugar. Oh – cover it to keep bugs from eating the sugar.

You can also do this with star anise and peppercorns and cinnamon sticks and… well, pretty much everything. If your spice is dried you’ll need to ‘revive’ it a bit – a short soak in water, alcohol, or best of all the appropriate oil till it’s slightly softened does fine here.

You’ll have this spice-infused sugar. And THAT can be an outstanding addition to a recipe that calls for sugar and spice. Or even as a sweetener to a beverage. It’s just something to try.

You’ll also – at least for fresh spices like ginger – end up with candied spice. I snack, occasionally, on candied ginger. It’s nothing like what you get in a store.

Now having mentioned all this, I’m going to introduce you to one more special treat. Purchase some good, medium roasted whole coffee beans. Mix them with sugar as described above. You’ll let this sit for a month or three for best effect, stirring daily.

Candied coffee beans are special. Covering them with chocolate or with a dust of vanilla sugar might be gilding the lily. Of course if you never try, you’ll never know, right? (And you can use the sugar in, say, your next chocolate cake.)

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