Module Two: Sugar and Fillings

Kira bakes gluten free module two: sugar and fillings header image with cupcake and caramel

Theory

I eat something sweet every day. I’ve never been able to shake this habit and to be honest, I haven’t ever wanted to because it makes me happy.  This doesn’t mean I eat a slice of chocolate cake every day. But it does mean that I will purposely source something sweet like drizzling some honey on my morning toast, snacking on a few pieces of dark chocolate in the afternoon, or having a scoop of ice cream after dinner. Food, specifically the sweet kind, brings me immense joy and I make a conscious effort everyday to allow myself this simple pleasure. I love sugar, and that’s why I’m so pumped for this module where we are going to get into everything sugar.

Sugar is such a beautiful, versatile ingredient. In its various forms you can transform it into light, voluminous meringue or melt it down to a dark amber caramel. It doesn’t just add sweetness to our desserts, it also contributes to the structure, texture and overall moisture in our recipes. Understanding how sugar functions and how we can control it is the key to making drool-worthy desserts and pastries.

Let’s talk about the gluten free component of this module. Because there really isn’t one and I’ll tell you why. There are some areas of pastry that are naturally gluten free and don’t require any adjustments.  Sugar, in the form of meringues, caramels and other confections, is one of them. My goal for this Module Two is to share all my knowledge and experience working with sugar, in its various forms, so you can combine these recipes for meringue, buttercream, caramel and ganache with any gluten free pastry, cake or plated dessert and know it’s worthy of any high-end patisserie or restaurant and take you to the next level in your baking journey.

Sugar

Cooking Sugar

Cooking sugar, usually in the form of a syrup, raises the sugar concentration as the temperature gets higher which makes the syrup thicker. As the sugar reaches higher temperatures, the evaporation of the water causes it to become thicker and, as it cools, harder. 

  • higher temperature sugar will produce a harder candy.
  • lower temperature will produce a softer candy.

The process for cooking sugar begins slowly and takes time as this is when the majority of the water evaporation is occurring. When it reaches softball stage and the sugar concentration is roughly 85%, it will begin to change colour and go from clear to a light golden shade. Because most of the water has evaporated it will increasingly cook at a fast rate. 

Graphic showing high vs low temperature for candy

Sugar Crystallization

Sugar, otherwise known as Sucrose is made of two molecules joined together, glucose and fructose. Glucose and fructose are disaccharides and naturally want to join together. When this happens, it’s called crystallization. To prevent or slow-down the crystallization process you can use interfering agents such as fats, acids and/or liquid sugars.

Suger Temperatures (Boiling Points)

The best way to monitor the temperature of sugar is to use a candy or digital thermometer. Below is a breakdown of the various transformations sugar goes through as the temperature increases. Starting with Thread stage and ending with Caramel.

  • Thread Stage

When sugar reaches the thread stage, it forms web-like strands when dripped above the saucepan. It will still have a thin and watery consistency.

223-233F/106-112C

Best for: Thread stage sugar can be used for making syrups, fruit liqueurs, and jellies.

  • Soft Ball 

You will know you’ve reached the soft ball stage when the sugar forms a really soft, small ball when dropped into ice water and will flatten quickly.

233-239F/112-115C

Best for: soft ball stage is best for making fudge, fondant, and buttercreams.

  • Firm Ball 

It will form a solid ball when dropped into ice water and pressure from your hands you will be able to squish it.

241-248F/116-120C

Best for: The firm ball candy stage is perfect for making creamy caramel candies and Italian meringue.

  • Hard Ball 

At this stage, the heated sugar will hold its shape when dropped in ice water.

250-266F/121-130C

Best for: The hardball stage is best for making marshmallows.

  • Soft Crack

At Soft crack stage, the hot sugar will begin to bend before it breaks. 

270-289F/132-143C

Best for: The soft crack stage is best for making butterscotch, nougat, and candy apples.

  • Hard Crack

In the hard crack candy stage, sugar will spread into brittle threads in ice water. When handled, it will break into tiny pieces.

295-311F/146-155C

Best for: making hard candies like lollipops and brittle.

  • Caramel

At the caramel stage ,the hot sugar will begin to develop a golden-amber colour. When dropped into ice water, the sugar will form a solid chunk that requires some effort to snap.

320-359F/160-182C

Best for: making caramel sauce, flan, praline, and décor 

Types of Caramel

The caramelization process occurs when sugar molecules break down and recombine, resulting in a complex mixture of compounds that give caramel its unique taste and colour. To achieve this, you can use either the ‘Dry’ or ‘Wet’ caramel cooking methods.

  • Dry Caramel is made by slowly cooking down sugar until it melts. This technique is the trickiest as the sugar can crystalize easier before the caramelization occurs.

This method is best used when making Clear Caramel. Clear Caramels have a slightly bitter and intense flavour profile. You can add flavour to Clear Caramel by introducing a clear liquid such as liquor, or fruit juice once the sugar turns a dark amber colour.

Best for: custards, flans and plated desserts.

  • Wet Caramel combines sugar with water, cream and/or glucose which helps protect the sugars from crystalizing. 

This method is best used for making Enriched Caramel. Enriched Caramels have a smoother, creamier texture and as well as a milder and more balanced flavour. Water and glucose (or clear corn syrup) are added to the sugar during the initial caramelization process. Then heavy cream, butter and salt are added to finish the caramel.

Best for: toppings for desserts, ice cream and fillings for pies, tarts and cakes. It also flavours buttercream beautifully. 

Meringue

Types of Meringue

Each meringue can quite easily be categorized by the level of difficulty in preparing it, what you can actually make and bake with it, and how stable it is. The tricker the technique, equals a better meringue.  Below I have list the meringues from easiest to hardest.

  • French
    • Preparation: French Meringue (otherwise known as Common Meringue) is naturally gluten free and is the simplest of the meringues to make! It comes together by simply whipping two ingredients, sugar and raw egg whites. Within minutes these two ingredients transform into a glossy sweet, voluminous mixture.  
    • Best for: French Meringue is light, airy and delicate. Perfect for making meringue cookies or pavlova.
    • Stability: French Meringue is the simplest to make. It is also uncooked and not considered stable.
  • Swiss
    • Preparation: Swiss Meringue is a glossy, marshmallow-like confection that comes together within minutes of gently heating and whipping sugar and egg whites over a bain-marie. 
    • Best for: Because Swiss Meringue is heated to a temperature of 46C/115F during the mixing process, it is much more stable than French Meringue and safe to consume without further baking and will hold its shape. This means it’s perfect for making buttercreams, cake fillings and adding piping and decorative elements to desserts. 
    • Stability:: Swiss Meringue is moderately stable and can be used in certain recipes without further cooking.
  • Italian
    • Preparation: Italian Meringue is coveted by pastry chefs because it is the most stable of all the meringues. It comes together by slowly pouring hot sugar syrup over beaten or whisked egg whites. This process gently cooks the egg whites, completing the pasteurization process without further baking. The results are a dense, marshmallow-like, silky texture.
    • Best for: Decorating dessert and tarts, buttercreams, masking cakes, Italian macarons and aerating mousses and ice cream bases.
    • Stability: Italian Meringue is the most stable and versatile because it is fully cooked.

Sugar Ratios for Meringue

  • Soft Meringue uses a ratio of one part egg whites to one part sugar. Because soft meringue has a smaller amount of sugar it won’t dry hard so its best used folded into sponge cakes and mousses. 
  • Hard Meringue generally has a ratio of one part egg whites to one and a half to two parts sugar. This meringue will hold its shape and can be dried until it sets hard. Best used for piping decorative designs on cakes and desserts.

Stages of Meringue Peaks

Understanding and visually being able to distinguish between whipped peaks is necessary in the pastry world because each peak is best suited for specific recipes.

  • Soft Peak will cling to the whisk when lifted but will not form a pointed peak. Best used for souffles.
  • Medium Peak is when a peak will form when the whisk is lifted, but the meringue tip will fall over slightly. Best used to lighten creams and cake batters.
  • Stiff Peak is when a sharp point is formed and remains intact. You will be able to turn the bowl upside down without anything moving or falling out. Best used for piping, décor and meringue buttercreams.

Chocolate

Chocolate is made from the seed or “bean” of the tropical cacao tree. The cacao tree is also known Theobroma Cacao, which in Greek means “Food of the Gods”. And I couldn’t agree more!

One of my first jobs after graduating from culinary school was working as a chocolatier. It was a dream come true and I learned so much. Since I was a child, I had a reputation of having an obsession over chocolate and that obsession only grew as I got older.  I could eat and talk about chocolate until I am blue in the face. For this reason, I have kept this section rather tight as I wanted to focus on sugar, not chocolate. But rest assured that I am working on a dedicated ‘Chocolate’ module that will be released in 2024.

Cocoa Mass/Cocoa Liquor

When you read the ingredient ‘cocoa mass’ or ‘cocoa liquor’ it is referring to the combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is the fat/oil extracted from the cocoa beans after they have been roasted and crushed until cocoa nibs and it accounts for approx. 53% of a cocoa nib. This fat is solid at room temperature, resistant to rancidity and keeps indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place. 

Cocoa butter is extracted from the cocoa nib and then added back in during the chocolate making process to improve the overall texture. It’s what gives chocolate that “melt in your mouth’ quality.

Chocolate HATES water. Keep them apart at all costs as it will cause the chocolate to split and go lumpy. When this happens there is no saving it so make sure all your equipment is free from water.

Types of Chocolate

Chocolate ranges from bittersweet which will contain the highest level of cocoa mass, to the milk chocolate less than 15% cocoa mass.

  • Dark/bittersweet chocolate will contain the highest amount of cocoa mass, usually around somewhere between 65% to 99%. The other 1% to 35% will comprise mainly of sugar. Natural sweeteners like vanilla and emulsifiers like lecithin make up less than 0.5%.
  • Milk Chocolate is mostly sugar and powdered milk. The cocoa mass is usually between 35% to 55%.  
  • White Chocolate actually isn’t technically chocolate as it doesn’t contain any cocoa mass. It is a confection made from mostly cocoa butter, with added powdered milk, sugar and lecithin.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is made from drying out cocoa mass. The dried cocoa mass is then ground into a fine powder and sold as natural cocoa powder.  Cocoa powder doesn’t contain any sugar or flavourings, so it is very bitter.  There are two widely used types of cocoa powder which contain their own chemical properties and flavour, so it’s important to understand how each of them works before substituting one for another in a recipe. 

  • Natural Cocoa Powder is ground cocoa mass. Because natural cocoa powder is very bitter and acidic, it is often used in recipes such as brownies, cakes and cookies that contain baking soda.
  • Dutch Process Cocoa Powder is made when natural cocoa powder undergoes a process called “Dutching” where the cocoa beans are treated with a alkaline substance. The process raises the PH level and reduces the acidity. Making it darker in colour, milder in flavour (reduced bitterness and acidity).

What is Tempered Chocolate?

Tempered chocolate is shiny, has a nice snap and smooth texture when eaten.  Tempering chocolate is the process of heating, cooling and agitating the chocolate so it is stable enough to make various confections. There are several different ways to temper chocolate. They include seeding, blocking and tabling.

There will be a dedicated module to Chocolate and how to temper chocolate coming in 2024!

Working Temperatures for Chocolate

  • Dark Chocolate 28-32C/82-90F
  • Milk Chocolate 28-30C/82-86F
  • White Chocolate 26-28C/79-82F

Below you will find links to the Sugar and Fillings Recipes that use several of the discussed baking principals and methods.  The best way to learn is by getting yourself in the kitchen and to start getting some hands on experience. 

I’ve ranked the below recipes from least to most challenging. If you are feeling intimidated or just want a recipe that will give you the confidence boost your looking for then start at 1 and work your way down the list. 

Using sugar to create some of the best confections and dessert fillings.

  1. Dark Chocolate Ganache
  2. French Meringue
  3. Swiss Meringue
  4. Swiss Meringue Buttercream
  5. Italian Meringue
  6. Caramel Sauce


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