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Sugar… Just the word conjures up feelings of warmth and comfort. We eat it at birthdays and weddings, we eat it in chocolate at holidays and we put raw sugar in our coffee and tea every morning. From World War II GIs eating M&Ms to countless pop culture mentions, sugar has always had a prominent place in the American pantry.
The 18th century was no different. With an influx of cheap, Caribbean sugar English aristocrats put more and more pressure on their cooks to dazzle them with edible art. I specialize in confection work and in this blog I would like to show you my process of making a sugar centerpiece fit for the table of a wealthy English aristocrat.
Every confection I make starts with some type of inspiration. It can be inspiration from a walk around town, studying 18th century prints or looking through some books on Roman mythology. I also like using architectural features of the Governors Palace.
Once I find inspiration, I start drawing out the piece. I try not to get too detailed in the drawing, because I usually have cut it up to make a template. All I really need is the basic outline so I can use it to cut out the sugar dough.
In the 18th century, all of this work could be avoided by purchasing a sugar plate mold. These elaborate carved boards were used to make borders for cakes and elaborate candies with beautiful designs stamped into them. However, truly experienced cooks still made sugar work by hand with no mold.
In the 18th century, food was not only nourishment, but could be used in a very politically savvy way. For instance, Frederick, the Prince of Wales, son of King George III, hated his brother the Duke of Cumberland. Unable to publicly attack his brother because of strict court protocol, he had his talented cooks make a model of the Duke’s palace out of sugar. This was laid on the table at dinner and it was bombarded with sugar plums and eaten for dessert.
With the templates ready, it’s time to make the centerpiece.
First I make my sugar dough (then known as sugar plate). There are several recipes for sugar plate; through experimentation I’ve come up with my own based on one in a 17th-century cookbook.
My recipe is comprised of two cups of powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons of gum tragacanth (gum Arabic, gum dragon tears) and 1 tablespoon rosewater.
I then add one tablespoon of water at a time until it forms a thick dough. This can be used to make any number of sugar sculptures.
Once I have my dough I have to work quickly. For a flat piece, which is what I primarily make, I roll my sugar dough out to 1/4 of an inch, then immediately start to cut out the designs using my templates. When cut out, you have to lay it on a bed of powdered sugar to let it dry.
Once the sugar dough is completely dry, the arduous task of painting and gilding begins.
My first step for painting is outlining in black. Once outlined, I start filling in the outline with the colors. This truly brings the piece to life.
In the 21st century, we are now starting to get back to natural food colors; they had no choice in the 18th century. Red came from a crushed beetle named cochineal, yellow from saffron, green from spinach, blue from violets, brown from chocolate, and black from all the colors mixed together.
These expensive colors are painted in between the previously painted outline. To add a final dash of flare, I gild some or all of the pieces of the sugar work. I do this by painting the dried sugar piece with egg white and sugar and place the 24-karat gold leaf on the moistened sugar with a brush or a goose feather.
From the ornate iron gates to the marble floor and all the way into the dining room, the Governor was trying to show off his wealth.
A sugar centerpiece would add a final dash off flare to the diners experience at the palace. I hope this blog inspires you to start playing with your food and to add some artwork to your table at home.