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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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04.21.09

Give Me Some Sugar

Food History, Recipes


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Sugarcane has an often vague and definitely checkered past. Because there is now no wild sugarcane growing anywhere in the world, it is hard to pinpoint its place of origin, but most scholars think it originated in India, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. From there, once its sweet secrets were discovered, it spread rapidly to Malaysia, Indonesia, Indochina, and southern China.

It appears that the Dravidians, India’s denizens before the Aryans invaded from the north, pushing them southward, were the first to utilize sugarcane, though they were making molasses, rather than refined sugar. When the Aryans swept in around 800 BC, they “rediscovered” sugarcane, and by 500 BC, appear to have created a machine that allowed them to create “crystal sugar.”

Sugar may have moved into Persia, after Darius the Great visited India in the fifth century BC, but if it did, it remained too costly for commoners. It is possible that, instead of sugar, cane cuttings and technology were what the Persians carried away, but historians disagree on this. People in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean did not have sugarcane at this time, but they knew about it, and the Bible refers to “sweet cane from a distant country.” Though they’d heard of it, Greeks and Romans didn’t use sugar.

It is not known when or where sugarcane was introduced to the West, but it is known that the introduction was made by Arab traders. Our clues as to a relatively wide acquaintance with sugar are largely anecdotal, but they are compelling. Shakespeare and other writers in Elizabethan England were writing about sugar in the sixteenth century, using it in ways that suggest common knowledge. Marco Polo was familiar with sugar when he encountered it in China during the thirteenth century, and indeed, during the Middle Ages, Polo’s home town of Venice, the acknowledged queen of the spice trade, had made this new “spice” part of her lucrative trade monopoly.

Once sugar was commonly available, Italians became the first major addicts. Because sugar was expensive, it was another way the wealthy could show off, and soon every part of the meal was being sweetened, including the pasta dishes. France was a little more restrained, but still took to sugar wholeheartedly. Household accounts began to list “white sugar” in the 1300s, and Charles V was known to sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on his toasted cheese. The first book about cooking with sugar was published in Venice in 1541 and had been translated into French by the following year. The first book on sugar written in French was published (rather surprisingly) by Nostradamus in 1555.

The Age of Exploration brought about the next big jump in sugar’s history. Once Vasco da Gama reached India, Portugal was able to break Venice’s monopoly on the sugar trade. And gosh, hadn’t Europeans just discovered the best possible places to introduce the growing of sugarcane. Soon, fields of cane were waving beneath the bright sun of South America and the Caribbean (or West Indies, as the islands were then known). Coffee, tea, and chocolate were gaining in popularity in Europe, and that meant the demand for sugar was skyrocketing. Unfortunately, the solution hit upon for growing the increasing amount of sugarcane needed was the slave trade. The West Indies and sugar became an important part of the notorious Triangle Trade and were major players in the early economy of the New World.

Sugar is still big business. With slavery ended, we can eat sugar without pangs of conscience, but there is an increasing concern over the health effects of eating too much sugar. Interestingly, while too much sugar is a health hazard, sugar itself is less damaging than some of the alternatives now being widely used in the U.S., most especially high fructose corn sweetener. In small quantities, sugar is a soothing and pleasant treat that is now one of life’s cheapest thrills.

The recipe below is for a pie I discovered years ago in Montreal. This traditional confection is almost as old as Quebec itself, and there are myriad versions. The version I have developed incorporates the most widely documented ingredients and produces a pie that mimics the best sugar pies I had in Canada. Despite its name, it is not overly sweet. It might be described as something like pecan pie without the pecans—and yet, because there is no corn syrup, it is not quite as sweet as pecan pie. Enjoy.

Quebec Sugar Pie

9-inch pie crust, unbaked
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 Tbs. flour
Pinch salt
2 eggs
1 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbs. melted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a bowl, combine the sugar, flour, and salt, blending thoroughly. In another bowl, whisk eggs until frothy. Whisk in milk and vanilla. Add egg mixture into sugar mixture, stirring until smooth. Whisk in the melted butter. Pour into pie crust.

Bake in center of oven. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce to 350 degrees, and continue to bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is set. Let cool on rack. Great plain, but especially nice served with unsweetened or lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Important Note: The filling is heavy and fluid. If you are going to make this in a foil pie pan, put the pan on a cookie sheet before you fill it. Otherwise, the weight of the filling will cause the foil to buckle when you lift the pan, and a lot of the filling will pour out. The other advantage to using the cookie sheet is, if some does boil over during initial heating, it won’t goop up your oven.

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