By Paula Forbes
My dad divides holidays into two categories: the gift holidays and the candy holidays. Gift holidays are when you give people presents: birthdays, Fathers’ Day, Mothers’ Day. They are also, in his opinion, vastly inferior to the candy holidays: Halloween, Easter, and Valentine’s Day. In other words, holidays are nothing without sugar.
Before refrigeration, dishes like fruitcake or mincemeat pies employed candied fruit as a way to incorporate out-of-season harvests or bounties from far-off lands (figs, dates, citrus). Sugar plays a role in making old-fashioned treats that are heavily spiced or liquor-drenched more palatable.
On a foundational level, sugar helps define the texture of cookies and candies. The longer you cook sugar, the harder it becomes when it cools—that’s how you achieve the soft chew of a caramel and the dense tackiness of a toffee. Meanwhile, specialty types like pearl sugar or demerara can add crunch and sparkle to the tops of sweet breads, cookies, and cakes.
As every 5-year-old with a tub of sprinkles and a vat of icing knows, one of the best parts of baking is the decorating. Again, we’d be nowhere without sugar. Icing turns plain old sugar cookies into masterpieces while sprinkles, nonpareils, colored sugar, and edible glitter add some glitz. Even something as simple as dusting powdered sugar can take a simple cake or pan of brownies to the top.
While most cultures have had access to sweeteners like honey since ancient times, sugar as we know it was first made from sugarcane in the Pacific Islands. Cane sugar—made by boiling cane juice down until it forms crystals—made its way west through India and was available in Persia by the sixth century. Once a luxury item, sugar really hit its stride in the 18th century when a process was developed to extract sugar from beets, which grow in a wider variety of climates than sugarcane. These days, you can find both cane and beet sugar on the market.
No matter which type you use, sugar provides a boost to your sweets, be it textural, decorative, or flavorful.