Spinning a Web with Sugar

I offer the following to you in August while the indoors are cool and the air dry…so you can practice a couple of months without weather woes to produce show-stopping candy rarities during the holidays to come…

Sugar spinning, pulling, pouring and even blowing (like glass blowing) are age-old arts begun by countless generations before us, who were obsessed with the amazing versatility of sugar and the magic it brings at a variety of temperatures.  Some of today’s pastry chefs employ the same recipes and similar techniques from those developed by the Venetians in the 9th Century and the many generations that have followed, including my own ancestors.

Toward Christmastime especially, a handful of candy kitchens pour out batch after batch of nostalgic pulled candies that probably hit their height of popularity back in the Depression of the 1920s when they became treasured gifts during Christmas when little else was in the stocking. You’d be surprised how many simple homemakers do it today keeping the art and technique alive, but modern pastry chefs have taken this to inconceivable heights in the sugar art contests held everywhere, especially in Europe.

I spent many years collecting notes from my paternal grandmother and both great-grandmothers, who were all three absolute masters in the art of spinning and blowing. (I have many picture treasures of my grandmother, a confectioner, who would blow blobs of molten sugar into vases and bowls to display her chocolates, candies, fudges, cookies, cakes and pies, and make a myriad of platforms by pouring molten sugar in kaleidoscopic designs and melting the pieces together to form solid, well-engineered forms!)  For a bit of trivia, from the very beginning of the movie industry, Hollywood employed many a pastry chef to create clear sugar break-away windows for our movie stars to blast through, which have only more recently (last 10-15 years) been replaced by hi-tech plastics.

To these notes and recipes, which took some time translating into American English and modern cooking techniques, I have added my own wee bit of experience from dabbling over the decades, and I hope that fills in the blanks along the way.

First, a WARNING! Sugar spinning and/or sugar pulling should NEVER BE DONE BY, WITH or even NEAR CHILDREN! And this is not something home cooks with little experience in the kitchen should undertake either! Regardless of your experience and prowess, YOU WILL RECEIVE SERIOUS BURNS!!!! The number of burns you receive will be entirely dependent upon your care, your familiarity of syrups, the amount of experience you have in spinning and/or pulling and, therefore, your skill.

So, why in the world would I print this? Well, in the event out there is researching candy history or wants to learn how to make a Croquembouche, and so that others will have a basic idea of how ribbon candy is made. On that note, especially if you live near the Northern Eastern Seaboard or near Amish country (and you can find other scattered across North America), go find one of those “Mom & Pop” candy stores and watch then crank out candy this holiday season.  Your children will be fascinated, and so will you!

Beginning with the easiest technique, let’s talk sugar spinning!

For materials, you will need:

A still, chilled room, without heated or cooled air blasting from a vent anywhere near your work area. 

A lot of newspaper (cover your floor and any lower cabinets around your work area and tape it down with masking tape. Trust me, it’s much easier to mop up the worst spill imaginable than to scrape off hardened syrup!)

Cover your entire counter/work area with parchment paper or waxed paper and tape it down.

A lightly- but completely-oiled large, heavy baking sheet, with the extra oil removed with paper towels.

Gloves: I use heavy surgical gloves, but Playtex gloves work well also to keep syrup off of your skin, and you can still feel through them.

A calibrated candy thermometer that reads above 350 degrees (F).  Calibration not only is determined by what temp the thermometer reads in rapidly boiling water (212 degrees) and adjusted to accommodate, but also on one’s altitude.  If you don’t clearly understand what I mean here, don’t bother trying to work with sugar at high temps.  (I’ll post my notes on that in a separate post.)

A clean, never-used-before pastry brush with a small bowl of water set near the cook top.

A big bowl nearby half-filled with icy cold water.

A multi-pronged spinning implement, be that a common table fork or a wire balloon whisk with the bottom bits of wire cut off to form an open whisk. (I made my own out of about 25 10-inch-long strands of (I believe!) 16-AWG copper wire all bundled tightly and wound with the same wire for the handle, then that handle dipped into several drippings of liquid plastic, with the bottom splayed open. For me, the copper strands hold the heat longer and are a little more forgiving in terms of time. My grandmother used what appears to have been a Japanese bamboo tea stirrer.)

Oil flavorings (peppermint oil, almond oil, lemon oil, etc., etc.)

Paste-based food coloring

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The Basic Syrup Recipe:
3-1/4 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of DISTILLED water (less impurities, see below)
1-1/3 cup of light corn syrup
½ teaspoon of Cream of Tartar

Place the sugar and the water into a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Stir constantly over low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Raise the heat to Medium and bring the syrup to a boil. You will begin to see a white foam brought to the surface, which are impurities always present in sugar (skim this foam off with a large spoon or ladle and place the foam into a heat-proof bowl.) When making most candies, these impurities are of no concern. They are not in the least harmful for consumption and you usually don’t even know they are there. But we want the clearest syrup possible and when you cook syrups above 265 degrees, those impurities make a huge difference not only in clarity, but in strength.)

Continue boiling over medium heat.

Now gently brush the inside perimeter of the saucepan with your wet, but not dripping wet pastry brush, slightly above the boiling sugar, but don’t use too much water on the brush when you’re doing this, or it will cool down the syrup and increase cooking time.
Continue skimming the foam and washing down the perimeter of the saucepan 4-5 times, until the syrup is completely clear.

Check the temperature of the syrup. When the temperature reaches 235 degrees (F), add the corn syrup and the cream of tartar and stir gently to blend. (Again, waiting until this temperature is reached before adding the corn syrup and cream of tartar is to prevent discoloration, and it does.)

Now raise the heat to its HIGHEST level, attach your candy thermometer, and do not stir any more. Boil the syrup until the temperature reaches 305 degrees (F). Higher temperatures than this result in harder spins and are more difficult to work with.

(However, once you’ve mastered the basics, go back the next time, cook the syrup to 315 degrees (F) and start spinning to enclose an oiled heat-resistant bowl to make a show-stopping display bowl for fruit or confections and it is quite strong with enough layers!)

Have a large bowl of ice and water (mostly water) nearby. Once the syrup has reached 305 degrees, remove the saucepan from the heat and plunge it (slowly) into the icy water (to a depth of about half-way up the saucepan) for about 30 seconds to halt the cooking process.

Now take the saucepan to your work area and place it carefully onto several hot-pads resting on your work surface. Take your fork or modified balloon whisk and dip into the sugar syrup (start with shallow dips until you get the hang of it) and wave the fork/whisk back and forth over the baking pan to draw out long, fine, threadlike strands of syrup. And the more smoothly you wave, the more consistent and finer the diameter of the threads will be. The syrup will begin hardening (and cooling therefore) almost immediately when removed from the hot pan. With practice you can form the strands into a lattice design, swirls, birds nests, or even form them into a lacy dome by drawing them out over an inverted oiled bowl or other desired shape. The sky’s the limit as long as the form is heat-resistant and the syrup maintained at the proper temperature.

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A Croquembouche is a French delight (their traditional wedding cake of cream puffs) traditionally held in place by dipping each cream puff in a thin caramel syrup coating, stacking same into a conical shape and surrounding the entire conical mound with spun sugar threads.   In my own recipe, I use a Cointreau liquor pastry cream base for my cream puffs that are brushed with the traditional thin caramel syrup and then stacked around a conical stiff-paper mold (later removed), then coated in threads upon threads of spun syrup.  The general technique of creating the threads is to spin the syrup in spirals beginning at the base and continuing to the top until the Croquembouche is coated by a myriad of tiny, glistening threads.

***************************************

Now onto sugar pulling.

Add one more item to your materials list: a heat lamp! Affix the lamp near your work surface to shine down about a foot above the surface. (You will use this later to keep the pulled sugar warm and malleable.)

Using the same syrup cooked to 305 degrees (F), instead of spinning the syrup, pour the entire batch onto a lightly oiled marble slab or a Silpat mat and let it cool for a minute. Then begin folding the mass, from the corners into the center, using a metal spatula (like a cake icing spreader — my candy spatulas are much like those, but have a 45-degree bend near the handle).

Right now, the sugar is a caramel color, but when pulled will be a creamy white color. If you wish to color the sugar, add a paste colorant and rub it onto the mass and continue folding. For a variety of colors, divide the mass into sections, rub separate colorant onto each and work with one section at a time, keeping the others beneath the heat lamp. (This is how I make ribbon candy.)

Continue folding the sugar, which produces even cooling. Otherwise, the outside edges would cool faster and harden, while the middle would still be soft and warm. Fold and fold until the sugar is cool enough to handle by hand, but still warm.

Now start pulling the sugar by holding it down against the slab or mat with one hand and stretching the mass out with your other hand. Then fold the mass over onto itself and continue pulling and folding, pulling and folding until it begins to take on a glossy, shiny satin appearance. (You will probably pull and fold the sugar 15-20 times to get to this point. The satin opacity is created by the crystallization of the sugar. Once it reaches this point, you are going to stop pulling or it will loose all of its shine. And you will notice that the sugar is becoming thick and requires more effort to pull with each cycle.

Place the sugar under the heat lamp for a few moments to warm up slightly.

At this point, one can use specialty silicone molds to press portions of the pulled sugar into leaves and a myriad of other shapes. I’ve seen a mold that creates a carriage pulled by four horses! And you can pull your own shapes by hand, such as flower petals, sails for a candy sailboat, and on and on. And, by working under the heat lamp, you can also cut out your shapes using sharp, heavy scissors. Simply pulling into a rope and snipping into individual candies is a wonderful way of making lemon drops (roll them into powdered sugar) or peppermints or butterscotch candies. You can even roll them between your palms to round them out.

Another quick and easy thing you can do is to pull a small section of the warm mass still on the slab/mat and begin wrapping it around a dowel to create a curly-cue ribbon. You merely turn the dowel and the sugar will pull out into a consistent thread diameter.

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To make ribbon candy:

Begin with the same syrup fresh off the stove. Pour the syrup onto the slap and begin folding with your spatulas, from the outside edges into the center. After a couple of folds, you can add the flavor oil of your choice. (I prefer almond and peppermint.) Continue folding over and over until the syrup has cooled enough to handle (but it’s going to still be hot!). Snip the mass into thirds, leaving one uncolored, one with red added, and the third with green (for example).

Working with one third at a time (and the other two waiting their turn under the heat lamp), begin pulling and folding, over and over until you begin to see that satiny appearance. Then place under the heat lamp and work with the other thirds, one at a time.

When all three have been pulled properly, and all three have rewarmed under the heat lamp, place the thirds one on top of the other (with the uncolored one in the middle) and squeeze the mass together firmly. Then pull and fold one more time and then begin the final pull into a long, thin band, cutting off four- to six-inch lengths with your scissors, then “pleating” the candy into its final shape. All of this, by the way, must be done beneath that heat lamp, but when the final candies are shaped, they are now ready to set off to the side to cool and harden completely.

To achieve several different “streams” of color in the same candy, merely divide your original thirds further and arrange into your color pattern, then squeeze together well before pulling.

A favorite variation of this is to take that dowel from a few moments ago and pull those four- to six-inch lengths around the dowel to make ribbon candy icicles! (Once wound and removed from the dowel, you unroll them slightly at one end to flare the end and make it larger in diameter than the opposite “bottom” end. You can further take a large, heated needle and create an “eye” in the top suitable for attaching embroidery floss for hanging on your Christmas tree.

Another favorite is the Candy Cane (using the same technique and the syrup mass halved – one left uncolored, one colored red, both with peppermint oil added), twist the two pulls around each other and pull again. Snip off into lengths and form into canes and allow to cool completely.

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A final word about sugar:

To master any and all of these techniques will take a LOT of practice. Temperatures and altitudes play havoc with each other and the higher you cook sugar, the less forgiving it becomes. Even two degrees either way will either make the syrup too hot and too hard to deal with, or it won’t harden properly on the other end of the temp spectrum. My second batches are always better than the first ones, even after years of working with these syrups.

Another point of extreme importance is that you use scrupulously clean equipment!

Further, use a large marble slab, and be certain to allow it to cool well between batches, because extra oil combined with a warm slab are two of the worst enemies for sugar, and it will stick almost permanently to the slab.

For those of you who decide to give this a whirl, good luck and be very safe!

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~ by eheavenlygads on August 27, 2007.

7 Responses to “Spinning a Web with Sugar”

  1. I would like to learn more about sugar art. could you give me any more resorces for learning specific techniques…especially sugar blowing….Ive tried some experiments with some success but I feel I could do better with some basic techniques.

    SpinningSugar: Thank you for the request, Robb. You motivated me to offer another post that I hope you will find helpful. Keep up the good work and very best of luck to you in your continuing endeavors!

  2. I just started pulling sugar and working with sugar but often i run into a problem my sugar pulls very nicely and it looks great but when i mold it around something it does not harden very well and its has a sticky feel to it. I think ma bey i am not reaching a proper temp if u could help me out that would be great. And do u recommend any sites on sugar and sugar pulling. Thanks

    SpinningSugar: First I would apologize to you, Kenton, for taking so long to respond to your querie. Alas, I’ve been out of town, the last week eating and drinking my way across Napa and Sonoma Valleys…

    As for your problem, I have two thoughts: I agree with your belief that you may not be bringing the syrup to a high enough temp. Do you cook all the way to 305 degrees (F)? My second thought is, if you do, what is your altitude? 305 degrees is the proper temp at Sea Level, so you may well have to adjust for altitude and bring the final temp higher to compensate. Beyond these two points, I would inquire as to the humidity level when you are working with the sugar. If your humidity is greater than 60%, I’d be highly suspicious of that as the culprit, most especially in lieu of temps being off.

    Welcome to my nightmare, Kenton. A great deal regarding pulling and molding sugar is very nebulous, almost esoteric — it just takes time and practice to “feel” what’s right beyond the numbers. Keep up what is obviously outstanding work and don’t give up!

    Insofar as related websites are concerned, I haven’t found any. But I’m not surprised at my lack of success there, since this is a very obscure art and closely held among those in the industry. Perhaps other readers may know of some…????

    Many, many thanks for your interest and comments. Do let me know how your progress unfolds! (And it will !)

  3. Your site brings tears to my eyes. Thank you so very much for passing this information on.

    SpinningSugar: You humble me, Carol. Thank you for your care and exceptional kindness!

  4. What kind of gloves do you use. I am trying to find a good pair. Ones that can handle the heat not just keep me clean.

    Jamie, I personally use Medline’s newer “Neolon 2G” neoprene (latex-free) powder-free surgical gloves (ex-nurse here). With them, I have found outstanding “feel” in pulling. As far as heat handling is concerned, this is more a matter of experience with me in knowing when the mass has cooled enough to handle and is still pliable. I likely have less sensitive hands, thanks to a myriad of light burns over the years. I don’t know of a way to avoid them, other than having years of experience telling me what my own tolerance is to the heat. On the flip side, sugar remains pliable after significant cooling, and it also increases in pliability with pulling and gentle reheating under the lamps. Not much help there…

  5. K I wasnt sure where to post this on this site so i figure heres as good as anywhere. I am very interested in working with sugar and chocolate as a sculptural medium, so I was wondering if anyone on this site could recomend some schools that could teach me from scratch. Thanks you!
    p.s. this site is pretty amazing

  6. I’m curious as to the gloves, does it leave a rubbery taste and do you oil or butter them before handling the sugar mass? I’ve been trying to make homemade swirl lollipops. Nitrile and clear plastic melted, powder free latex worked but left a rubbery taste on the candy. Not sure if that was because I buttered the gloves before handling the sugar mass.

  7. You articles are very well written and I found them informational. I only wish and suggest you add pictures to them. 🙂

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