Blowing and Sculpting Sugar
At the request of a kind reader named Robb, I offer the following information on the subjects of blowing sugar, as well as pulling and molding sugar into a variety of shapes.
CAUTION: Clearly understand that this post outlines dangerous techniques due to the exceptionally high heat of the syrup that is required. Don’t try this if you aren’t very familiar with making hard candies and NEVER, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, allow children anywhere near where this process is being conducted. You will get burned, no matter how careful or experienced you are.
Allow me to begin by stating blowing sugar is perhaps THE most tedious technique in Sugar Artistry to master. There is nothing complicated about it, yet, as with so many crafts, its mastery absolutely demands lots and lots of practice, and definitely a great deal of patience. Only through practice will your hands and eyes learn to recognize the changes in crystallization of sugar as it begins to solidify when pulled, moreover just how hard and how far you can physically stretch the sugar mass.
First, I recommend some research. Learn all you can about Ewald Notter, today’s unrivaled GOD of sugar artistry. He grew up in a small village near Zurich, Switzerland — the birthplace of all sugar arts — and became an absolute amazing prodigy of Willi Pfund, who was perhaps the most recognized authority in modern days of sugar artistry. In 1982, Mr. Notter and his wife authored THE most comprehensive instructional manual of sugar blowing and pulling. The Textbook of Sugar Pulling & Sugar Blowing is the most coveted manual among pastry chefs to this day. And it is out of print and I have never ever been able to locate a copy. If you find a used copy available and you are serious about learning the techniques, go ahead and sell your soul to obtain one. It will be well worth the price.
Mr. Notter has an unprecedented talent for pulling and blowing certainly, but what further aided him in receiving more awards here and abroad than anyone else in this craft in recorded history was his stunning ability to incorporate color into his works. Perfectly blended and folded by hand during the pulling process, the colorations in his magnificent sculptures defy recreation. Hence why his creations have adorned the tables of kings, queens and the extremely wealthy around the world, not to mention the most exclusive restaurants and hotels.
In 1982, Mr. Notter also founded his prestigious International School for Confectionary Arts in Zurich at the age of 27 teaching the creme-de-la-creme of advanced pastry chefs in Europe. One decade and a ton of international competition awards later, Mr. Notter moved his ISCA to Gaithersburg, Maryland and his school was the very first world-wide to invite international experts to teach his students, especially of the Old World Swiss traditions in pastry arts. In 2002, Mr. Notter moved his ISCA to Orlando, Florida, where he continues to teach and mentor professional pastry chefs. The school is now known as the Notter School of Pastry Arts…and if I had $25,000 to spend on tuition, I would beg for enrollment this very moment. That is especially the case, since only through his school is his Textbook of Sugar Pulling & Sugar Blowing offered.
Back to the subject at hand.
In blowing sugar into various hollow shapes (swans, fish, bowls and vessels, etc.) or pulling into solid shapes (leaves, wings, twirls, etc.) the most important considerations beyond procedural techniques are how to keep the sugar warm and pliable, and how to delay hard crystallization. Blowing and pulling and assembling projects simply takes time, its worst enemy.
Beyond the various tools of hand-bulb blowing tubes and moulds and mini-blow torches used to glue pieces together, a warming light is a necessity. Of heat lamps, infrared lamps are best. One option is to go to the local hardware store or farm supply store and buy a 12-inch clamp-style lamp with a porcelain socket and a 250-watt infrared heating bulb. Clamp the lamp 15-inches to 18-inches above the surface where your pulled sugar will rest. You will pay about $25 total for the clamp lamp and the bulb.
A much more “eye-friendly” design uses an infrared bulb in a porcelain socket mounted to the top of an inverted wooden or metal shallow box (i.e., a 2-foot by 2-foot square with 6-inch to 8-inch sides) and raised 15 to 18 inches above the warming surface. You will pay anywhere between $250 and $500 for these, or you can make one yourself. Alternatively, you might find an adequate commercial food warming stand at a restaurant supply or resale shop.
Insofar as the surface upon which your warmed sugar rests, a lot of folks use Silpat sheets (full sheet pan size), but I strongly prefer a pre-heated marble slab, lightly oiled. Marble helps to retain heat, which in this case is advantageous.
To delay crystallization, Cream of Tartar is your best friend. A salt of Tartaric Acid (notably produced from grapes, famous as the primary acid in red wines, and often found on wine corks in the form of glistening crystals), it helps invert Sucrose (white sugar) into its two components of Fructose and Glucose. Fructose and Glucose molecules are larger than Sucrose and simply get in the way of Sucrose crystallization. Another common additive to sugar confections that is familiar to every fudge maker is Corn Syrup, which is mainly glucose. It performs the same delay that Cream of Tartar does, but recipes for blown sugar syrups require a lot of help from both due to the high heat of the final syrup:
The Basic Sugar Syrup Recipe for Blowing & Pulling
1 lb. + 10 oz. white sugar (weighed!)
8 oz. filtered water
10 oz. light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. Cream of Tartar
Place a large non-reactive pot over low heat add the entire amount of sugar and water and stir slowly until the sugar has completely dissolved. (Will take about 20 minutes depending upon humidity and altitude.)
Raise your temperature to medium-high and bring the saturated solution to a hard boil. You will almost immediately begin to see a white foam forming on the top. This is from the impurities inherent to sugar. Take an insulated ladle and constantly skim the surface until no more foam is present. (You will be doing this for a while, too.) During this period, crystals will likely begin to form above the boiling line. If so, use a damp (not wet) pastry brush to remove them, brushing just above the boiling surface. Rinse the pastry brush after each use and shake out every bit of water before reusing.
When the syrup temperature reaches 230-degrees (F), add the corn syrup and the cream of tartar. Stir VERY gently only two or three passes through the syrup and bring the heat to its highest setting. Without stirring, bring the syrup to 300-degrees to 305-degrees (F). Remove from heat and place the pot into a large ice water-filled bowl for 30 seconds to flash cool the pan to stop cooking.
Take the syrup to your heat lamp station and pour the syrup onto your Silpat or preheated lightly oiled marble slab and let it rest a minute or two to cool more. It will quickly begin to thicken. Using two offset spatulas, begin scooping the outer edges of the mass into the center over and over and over to ensure even cooling. (You can add a small amount of paste food coloring at this point. If using more than one color, first divide the mass.) You can safely allow each division to rest beneath the light until you are ready to add color (or after), since pulling is what will begin the mass to solidify.
When it is just cool enough to handle by hand, begin pulling the mass by holding one end down with one hand and stretching the mass with the other. Fold the ends back together and repeat until it begins to loose its “clearness” and you see the lighter colored opaque streaks forming. It will become “satiny.”
You are at a very dangerous point now. The “satiny” shiny appearance is from crystallization. Too much pulling and you’ll end up with a hard-as-rock “thing.” Pull and fold just enough now until the mass is uniformly “satiny.” It will be shiny and opaque and thick, although still pliable. You will need to pull constantly under the heat lamp and sometimes you may need to allow the mass to rest under the lamps to reheat to become more pliable. Practice will train you well, because it is nearly impossible to explain.
Put the mass under the heat lamp to rest and go stretch your back for about five minutes.
At this point, you have a world of options available to choose from. You can cut off pieces of the mass to be blown into hollow shapes, cut off pieces to pull and form into flat shapes, cut off a piece and roll into a thick string between your hands and curl around a dowel, or cut off pieces to be placed into a preheated mould and formed into other shapes.
I wish I could figure out why I have such difficulty on WordPress posting pictures. But even if I could, I could not do a better job than this website that uses my same (standard, not proprietary) recipe and cooking techniques. Want to blow a swan or learn the basics on forming flower petals and leaves? Visit this page and following ones from PastryWiz. PastryWiz offers great into into further techniques, as well as using pasta rollers to create uniform thickness of the pulled sugar to create flat shapes, of which the sky is the limit to your own creativity. Just remember, if you do use a pasta roller, be sure to preheat the rollers in a 150-degree oven for at least 15 minutes before carefully placing into the pasta machine base and attaching the handle for rolling. If using a mould, preheat it in the same manner.
Taking a different slant, you can create a beautiful “water” base for your swan. First make your mould: Take a large round cake pan or casserole dish (with straight sides at least 2 inches high) and pour in cornstarch to a depth of one inch. Take a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and spray it VERY lightly with a flour-free oil spray (like Pam). Scrunch and bunch the foil a little all over to create texture. Place the foil in the dish (the foil edges should extend beyond the pan’s rim and the side pressed firmly against the side of the pan to create a straight edge) and very carefully use a soup spoon or teaspoon from your flatware drawer and push the tip gently to form inverted “peaks” of waves within the bunched-up areas of the foil. You will find, with practice, that you can change the angle of the spoon to send the “peak” in different directions. Do not tear or penetrate the foil.
Back up to the boiling syrup, which you will cook even hotter. When the syrup reaches 314-degrees (F), add about 1/8th tsp. of paste blue food coloring (or more for a darker base) to the syrup. It will quickly blend in the briskly boiling syrup. Cook the syrup this time to 315-degrees (F). Remove from heat and plunge the pot in the the ice water-filled bowl to flash cool for 30 seconds.
Next pour your hot syrup into your foil mould and leave it to cool slowly over a wire rack. Using the edges of the foil for handles, remove it from the pan, invert the mass, and carefully peel the foil from the solidified sugar. You can make any kind of base, including smooth ones in this manner. If your edges of the base are rough, use your blow torch to melt them smooth. You can also make a brushable paint by adding water to the paste food colors to add depth and contrast to the waves. Whitecaps come to mind, but not for a swan…
Last, let’s say you want to create a geometric display stand. For supplies, you will need a couple of large Silpats, a design, some sturdy card stock to cut out the shapes of your pieces, an adequate amount of modeling clay, and your handy-dandy hand-held blow torch. I use a butane mini welder for this and also use it to burn sugar on the tops of Creme Brulee. (This will not be edible, by the way…)
In my mind, I am going to make a flat disc on top of three triangular-shaped legs. Using the cardstock and a salad plate, I trace around the edge of the plate to create a circle and cut it out. I grab my Speedy 60-degree equilateral triangle quilting ruler and trace out two perfect triangles and divide each equally from the triangle top to the middle of the base. I cut these into four triangles (the two angles at the base are now 90-degrees and 60-degrees) and throw away one of these four triangles.
I place my cardstock shapes onto my Silpats with lots of room between the pieces. Then I take my modeling clay and roll it out carefully on my rolling board into a thickness of at least 1/4 inch and then cut 1/4 strips. (Quilting rules are exceptionally handy, since they are clear and help you to cut straight, equally-sized strips.) I then take these strips and outline my cardstock shapes. Seal the adjoining edges completely, but square the seal with your fingers to the original depth of the clay. Remove each piece of paper pattern leaving the modeling clay outlines on the Silpats.
Create your syrup identically as I described in making a “water” base for your swan above. Add the pigment (red is especially nice at Christmas for making a truffle stand) at 314-degrees (F) and cook until the syrup reaches 315-degrees (F). Remove from heat, plunge the pan into ice water for 30 seconds and pour the syrup carefully inside the modeling clay molds. Pour to a depth of at least 1/8-inch, but do not pour to the top of the clay walls. A perfectly level surface is a must, or you will have one side of your form thicker than the other. By the way, you will also quickly discover how well you closed the abutting edges of clay.
Leave the syrup to cool completely inside the clay forms for several hours. First assemble your triangular stand using the blow torch to melt the triangle sides to stick together. When all three are joined (90-degree sides will be “glued together” at the center), heat the tops of the triangles well with your torch to flatten the points, and immediately place your disc on top of the melted points. Throughout the assembly process, especially when affixing the top, you will need to physically hold the pieces together until the sugar has cooled and has bonded.
That should get you going, Robb. I appreciate the request for more information and hope this post offers same, moreover steers you toward more information you seek.