Once you’ve got the knack of making spun sugar, there’s no end to what you can do with the magically elegant sweet stuff. The decorative forms you can create to top off your fancy desserts are limited only by your imagination!
There are basically two styles of dessert decorations made with what we loosely call spun sugar – sugar that’s been heated to a liquid, stretched into long strands, shaped, then allowed to cool and harden.
One is the super-fine “angel hair” spun sugar, light and frothy and delicate. It looks amazing when lightly shaped into tiny spun sugar nests to hold dainty treats or encase fresh fruit or pastries, or laid on top like a frothy cloud. The other kind of spun sugar, which personally I find easier to work with and much less messy in the kitchen, is the caramel style. This is ideally suited to making those eye-catching works of sugar art you see in high-end restaurants or at posh wedding receptions.
Read on to learn how to make your own caramel-y delicious dessert toppers!
Your Recipe for a Sweet Crunchy “Wow” Factor
Some recipes for spun sugar will call for glucose syrup (to help prevent crystallization) or corn syrup (serves the same purpose); others don’t. I don’t often use glucose or corn syrup in cooking, for health reasons, and generally prefer to make this recipe with no corn syrup, but the quantity here is so low – we’re talking about dessert toppers, remember, not the dessert itself – you may feel the advantages are worth it.
North American recipes generally call for regular white refined sugar but you’ll often find (finer grain) caster sugar as the main ingredient in British recipes for these dainty decorations. And some recipes don’t use any water at all – the fancy toppers are made only from sugar that’s been carmelized over heat. But here’s my best recipe:
1 cup granulated sugar
3 to 4 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp corn syrup (optional)
You can double these amounts if you keep the same proportions, but I’d suggest going with this to start with. It’s easier to learn the technique of handling the hot caramel liquid if you’re working with a smaller amount.
Put all the ingredients in a good heavy saucepan (pot) and heat gently on your stovetop until it melts together into a liquid. Try not to stir or shake it – agitating the sugar syrup will make it form crystals and lose its smooth consistency. If there are bits of sugar stuck on the side of the pot, you can just wet a heatproof pastry brush with water and wash it down gently. Bring the syrup to a boil. (This will take about 15 minutes over a medium flame.)
Just before it reaches 350 degrees F, when the melted sugar is a rich golden brown color, take the pot off the heat and over to your work area.
Stir gently, just a little bit, just to help it cool down to about 275 degrees F – this can take about 5-10 minutes, depending on how much sugar you’ve used, the material of your pot, and the ambient temperature of the room.
You want it to be just at where the sugar is still liquid but quite thick, able to hold its shape when you dribble a bit off the tines of a fork.
As you form your decorations, you will probably have to put the pot back on the heat to bring the sugar back up to working temperature – but that’s just fine, and you can reheat as many times as you need to.
Spun Sugar Spirals and Corkscrews
Spiral shapes are probably the most impressive all spun sugar artwork, and an elegant topper for any individual dessert such as a single-serving cheesecake, tart, or gateau, or to add a golden touch to a peak of creme fraiche over fresh fruit. Have a look, as chef Byron Talbott demonstrates the method – it is quick and simple, but it may take a bit of practice to do this with confidence:
In this video tutorial, our chef Byron winds a fine strand around a wooden pizzelle roller or waffle cone, to make an interesting spiral shape that’s wider at one end and then tapers down. If you don’t have a pizzelle roller in your kitchen, you can use the same technique with the handle of a wooden spoon to form long corkscrew shapes from the strands of golden liquid sugar.
Slip your spiral or corkscrew off the spoon or roller and very gently onto waxed paper or parchment paper to cool and harden, then seal it up in plastic cling-wrap inside an airtight container until you’re ready to garnish your desserts.
More Spun Sugar Dessert-Topper Ideas
Criss-cross the bottom of a small glass bowl or the back of a soup ladle, lightly oiled, to form a spun sugar basket. When it cools enough to hold it’s form, cup your hand over and twist it off, then set aside to finish hardening. (I just found a nice set of instructions with a sequence of how-to photographs at Caleigh’s Culinary Adventures you might want to check out..)
The same technique gives you two different presentation options: With the curved back side uppermost on the plate or gateau, it’s a caramel cage. Used with the open side up, it’s a delicate cup-shaped sugar basket – gorgeous filled with fresh fruit and/or a sorbet.
You may have seen a similar bowl or basket made with melted chocolate. It’s the same idea. In fact, at a restaurant in Montreal I once had fresh strawberries served in a basket created with interwoven strands of dark chocolate and golden caramel – wouldn’t that be fun to try?
Or you may also have seen videos of the amazing Chinese sugar-painting artists, or seen one of these men (usually it’s men) creating their decorative works at a roadside stand in Beijing or your local Chinatown. They drizzle the melted sugar into fantastic 2-dimensional shapes of dragons, koi fish, almost anything you can imagine.
With a little practice and artistic eye, surely a western confectioner could learn to do something similar!
But if representational sugar painting seems a bit ambitious for you, go modern and abstract with a free-form approach. Drizzle your spun-sugar off the spoon into an interesting shape onto a flat surface (parchment paper is handy here), for an abstract shape to stand up in the frosting on top of a cupcake.
What about doing a caramel monogram or initials, for a personalized dessert topper for a wedding or engagement party? Now, that would really have the “wow” factor!
Every cook likes to have a special “signature” topper for post desserts in their repertoire, and you’ll be the envy of all if your specialty is spun sugar shapes!
Top photo: Spun sugar by Kerwin O’Malley