My beautiful scientists at work nominated me for the Engagement Award last year (I’m still not entirely sure what Engagement means in this context), and I won it! I’m not sure who was more delighted – me, with my book voucher from Readings and the warming knowledge that my scientists love me enough to *voluntarily write things when they don’t have to*, or my scientists, who were just about beside themselves with glee at having successfully nominated me in secret *and* having it work.
Anyway, it seemed only appropriate that a book voucher from such an august and esteemed body of cake-obsessed scientists should be used, at least in part, to buy a suitably sugar-oriented cookbook. When I saw this luscious collection of confections, truffles, shortbreads, brownies and tartlets from around the world, my choice was obvious.
Sugar and Spice: Sweet Treats from Around the World is, quite simply, a gorgeous book. It’s also quite an unusual one in the sweet cookbook world, because the author’s unique background leads her to select sweets from a far wider range of cultures than is the norm. Pagrach-Chandra is, as you might expect from her name, ethnically Indian, but grew up on a sugar plantation in Guyana. She was educated in the US and Spain, and then married a Dutchman and moved to Holland. Sweets from all these countries and cultures are well represented, but she certainly doesn’t stop there.
I honestly don’t even know where to start talking about this book. It makes me so happy. It’s the book I didn’t even know I always wanted. And yes, I made about ten recipes from it within days of buying it. And then I broke another sugar thermometer and had to stop. Right now, I am eyeing the marzipan chapter – and I don’t even *like* marzipan – and wanting to try her pistachio marzipan recipe, or maybe the one for Indian-style cashew marzipan, or the French one full of candied citron and orange blossom water. Actually, I really shouldn’t be looking at this book right now, because practically everything in there is begging to be made. I may have to just work through this book methodically from start to end.
My scientists will just hate that, won’t they?
One or two recipes per day should do it…
Pagrach-Chandra believes that making sweets should be fun, and this bubbles off the page of the book. She states outright that tempering chocolate is a lovely thing if you can do it, but also a right pain in the neck (I’m paraphrasing), and just melting it is usually fine, and certainly good enough for her. I can’t tell you how liberating that is! I have, as it happens, tempered chocolate successfully. I have even managed it – once – without supervision. I have also failed at it four times without supervision (though, to be fair, my thermometer was at fault the fourth time – I should have trusted my instincts a bit more). I will, no doubt, try it again, but I must admit, recipes that blithely ask me to temper chocolate, while admitting that one could, they suppose, use plain melted chocolate, but really it wouldn’t be the same, always fill me with a faint sense of hopelessness.
There’s none of that here. Pagrach-Chandra really does make it her job to inspire confidence, giving ample information about ingredients (all of which are easily sourced, I might add) and alternatives, and providing, where possible, temperatures in celsius and fahrenheit, as well as descriptions of what the texture should be, or whether the syrup is at soft or hard crack or thread stage. She also tells you what the mixture might be doing – spitting, sticking, thickening, or holding together. It’s not quite as good as having someone in your kitchen looking over your shoulder to tell you when things are done, and I still haven’t quite parsed exactly what ‘very thick’ means in some contexts (I tend to err on the side of under-cooked, it turns out), but her cheerful descriptiveness and tendency to provide amounts for small batches makes the occasional not-quite-right sweet much less depressing.
While she doesn’t quite go so far as to tell you what to do if your batch of egg candy is too soft, she provides so many ideas about things that it would go with that you can usually figure out something tasty to do with the remains. And I really like the way she follows the chapter on chocolate truffles with one on very simple recipes for things like chocolate discs with various decorations, or chocolate nut clusters – recipes that are basically designed to give you something to do with the leftover melted chocolate that you used for dipping the truffles. I particularly love this because you just *can’t* dip chocolate without ending up with huge amounts of leftovers – you need a certain depth in the tray or bowl or it doesn’t work – so it’s nice to see a cookbook that thinks about this. There’s very little waste in Pagrach-Chandra’s kitchen.
Let me tell you about the gorgeous recipes! There is definitely a leaning towards Caribbean and Indian recipes in this book, which is great for someone like me, to whom such recipes are unfamiliar. So we have gorgeous things like chickpea fudge (so much nicer than it sounds), coconut toffee, and a whole series of milk sweets that starts with instructions on how to make paneer. The first chapter is caramels, toffee and similar things, so we have some fairly classic caramels, but also coffee blocks from The Hague, two kinds of honeycomb, and pistachio and saffron toffee clusters, which have a very middle eastern feel. Chapter two follows a similar theme, with a collection of nut and seed brittles, both plain and spiced with ingredients such as cinnamon, cayenne, ginger and coriander.
Chapter three moves on to less toffee-based confectionery, and provides recipes for peppermint creams, halva, marshmallow, nougat and Turkish delight, as well as the truly strange egg candy from Spain. This was one of the first recipes I made, just because it was so incredibly weird – apparently, egg whites were traditionally used in making mortar, so the egg yolks were given to the nuns, who used them to make confections of various kinds. This particular confection consists of egg yolk, lemon, sugar and ground almonds, and tastes like a sort of extra-rich, very thick, almondy, lemon curd. It’s fairly odd. Here, too, we have a collection of coconut-based sweets, and a chickpea sweet that seems to be somewhere between shortbread and fondant (it’s next on my list to make).
Chapter 4 is fudge and milk sweets – I don’t think I need to tell you what fudge is, and the milk sweets I have already described. I haven’t tried making these, yet, but they are also on my shortlist. But you do need a lot of milk to start with for the paneer… There are also milk dumplings, which I haven’t tried, and Scotch Tablet, which is possibly the sweetest thing I have ever made. A bit much, actually. Chapter 5 is marzipan of all kinds. I loathe and detest marzipan, but I am nonetheless sold on the idea of pistachio marzipan, and the little French marzipan sweets with candied melon sound amazing.
Just in case you didn’t have enough nuts (I’m afraid if you have a nut allergy, this book is really not for you), the next chapter is nut-based biscuits and macarons, including some lovely little pine nut biscuits, and sesame biscuits with orange flower water. We then move into chocolate mode, with chapters on truffles, chocolate, and brownies. These all look gorgeous, but are reasonably standard recipes.
There is an entire section on shortbread from around the world, including some green tea shortbreads and Chinese chrysanthemum biscuits filled with bean paste, as well as Turkish shortbreads that are soaked in lemon syrup. From shortbreads, we very logically move to tarts, none of which I’ve played with yet, but which do have a tendency towards nuttiness again. Though the mango tarts look amazing. The final chapter is basically petits-fours – tiny cakes such as cinnamon rice cakes, Sarah Bernhardts, Madeleines, tipsy cakes and marzipan fancies.
As you can see, there is quite a variety here – I’ve tried to keep this short, but even a basic overview goes on and on and on…
In terms of dietary requirements, this book is, of course, pretty much fine for vegetarians – there’s gelatine in the marshmallow recipe, but I think that’s the only recipe you need to worry about. Vegans would have to work a bit harder here, but there are a fair number of confections that are based primarily on sugar and nuts, and many of the shortbreads and biscuits could be adapted. I’d note that I’ve made chocolate truffles successfully with non-dairy milks, so these recipes would all be adaptable. I’d say that about a quarter to a third of the recipes would be vegan or easily veganised. If you are only avoiding dairy, that number wouldn’t rise very much (there’s a whole chapter on milk sweets, the fudges all have evaporated milk in them, and shortbread does rather need butter), but if you can eat dairy and not eggs, you would probably be able to use a good three quarters of the recipe in this book without making changes.
People with coeliac disease are also going to be happy with the number of gluten-free recipes in this book. The toffees, brittles, fudges and confections are almost all gluten-free, as are the truffles, marzipans and most of the milk sweets. The brownies are not, but have relatively little flour in them, which could readily be substituted out, and there is a whole section of things that by and large use ground nuts instead of flour. I’d say that better than two thirds of the book would be useful for you, and the sections that are not (which tend to be the biscuits, tarts and cakey things) are by and large the least interesting sections. People with fructose intolerance would have a little bit less fun with this book, but I’d say at least half the recipes would be fructose friendly.
Those with nut allergies have probably eyed the previous two paragraphs rather grimly, and with justice. Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra really, really likes her nuts. There are three chapters on nutty things (marzipan, brittles, nutty biscuity things), and many of the recipes in other chapters have nuts in them too. I’d say more than half the recipes have nuts. Sorry. And it probably goes without saying that if you are trying to eat low-GI foods, this is not the book for you.
Altogether, though, if you *can* eat nuts, this book is absolutely gorgeous and I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a great grounding in sweets from a number of cultures that don’t tend to get much represented in dessert cookbooks, and the combination of very classic, standard recipes with more strange and adventurous ones means that just about any cook could have a lot of fun with this book.
This time last year…Recipe: Potato Salad with herbs and saffron, for BethRecipe: Baked Sweet Potatoes with Hot Pink Coleslaw Cooking for People who Don’t: A Festival of Links and Recipes