Friday, July 8, 2011

Sugar Quills

Yesterday I underwent the most difficult, risky, and complex cooking experiment I have ever worked on for this blog.  I had actually been looking forward to making this particular Harry Potter food above anything else we have been planning, and while it was a fun project, man was it a challenge!  These troublesome treats are called sugar quills, and attempting to make them is not for the faint of heart.  Proceed with caution.

Sugar quills are described in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as “fragile sugar-spun quills” (Rowling 197), “‘which you can suck in class and just look like you’re thinking about what to write next’” (77).  Hermione seems to have a preference for sugar quills, probably because she's always got a quill in her hand to do her homework.

I was impressed to see that sugar quills are so realistically quill-like that they pass for a real quill in class.  I thought, “What is this ‘spun sugar’ and what makes it pass so well as a feather?”  I immediately looked up “spun sugar,” because I hadn’t the foggiest idea what that meant.  Now I know, and I’m happy to educate you as well.

Spun sugar is caramelized sugar (a sugar solution boiled at a high temperature until it browns) boiled to the “hard crack” stage in candy-making, and that forms long, spindly strings when allowed to drip off the bottom of a fork or whisk.  Chefs often use spun sugar as a decoration to create cages for cakes or ice cream in gourmet restaurants.

In case you’re unfamiliar with candy-making, the first thing you should know is that it is a huge pain to do.  Candy has to be caught at just the right temperature, lest it be too soft or burn.  You need a candy thermometer to do it properly. Candy thermometers look like this:

I knew what a huge endeavor I was taking on when I decided to make sugar quills.  I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to pull it off.  But every time I looked up “sugar quills” online, I only saw pictures like this:

These molded feathers don’t fit Rowling’s description at all.  They aren’t fragile, and they’re certainly not spun sugar.  I was determined, therefore, to be the first to do sugar quills properly.  Fortunately for me, I succeeded.

These quills have spindly little strings that make up the fine texture of feathers, while still being lovely, caramel-flavored hard candy that dissolves in your mouth as you suck on them.  Plus, they have utility in the classroom -- you can have your candy pen and eat it too!

Without further ado, here’s how I did it:

Sugar Quills

Part 1: The stick molds
Aluminum Foil
Inside tube of several ball-point pens (the ink/writing tip)
Cooking spray

I determined to make sugar quills that could actually be used as writing utensils in class, which is why I use the ball-point pens.  This isn’t perfectly accurate in the Harry Potter universe, since they would dip their quills in inkwells (ball-point pens are 100% Muggle).  But it’s as close as I could get.  The only problem is, the ink tube of the pens weren’t very long – certainly not long enough to write with and support a spun-sugar feather at the same time.  So I had to extend them.

Using small strips of foil, I set the ink stick of a pen into the middle of the foil.  Then I folded it over like a taco and created a crease on both sides of the foil.  

Then I removed the ink tube from the foil and bend back the foil along the creases to open up the hollow area where the ink tube had been.  This created a long, thin mold roughly the size of the ink tube.  

I repeated this step until I had made about 8 molds.  I then laid these molds carefully along a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet and sprayed them with cooking spray.  Then I placed the ends of the ink tubes into the molds (so that they overlapped by about 1 ½ - 2 inches). 

Part 2: Caramelizing Sugar

½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water

Place sugar in the bottom of a small saucepan.  Pour water on top.  Place over high heat and allow to boil.  DO NOT STIR.  Stirring causes the sugar to form crystals, which will completely ruin any spun sugar attempts.  As the sugar solution boils, it will stir itself.

When the mixture has come to a boil, place the candy thermometer in the solution, careful to clip it onto the rim of the pan so that the bottom of the thermometer is in the solution but does not touch the bottom of the pan. 

Allow the solution to boil until it reaches the “Hard Crack” candy stage, which is about 305 degrees Fahrenheit (it will take about 5 minutes).  The solution will have a light caramel color, like this:

I actually broke my candy thermometer at one point (those dang things are highly breakable.  Be kind to your candy thermometer!), so I judged my caramelized sugar based on the color, which worked fine.  The picture above is the perfect color.  Any lighter, and it would be at the “soft crack” stage, and any darker, and it would start to get a slight burnt flavor. 

As soon as the sugar solution reaches the proper temperature/color, remove from heat.  Allow bubbles to settle for 30 seconds to a minute before using. 

Part 3: Pouring the Caramelized sugar into the molds

Using a small gravy ladle, quickly pour the sugar syrup into the candy molds.  Quickly is the key word.  The sugar hardens fast, and you don’t want to risk reheating your syrup and causing it to burn or crystallize, so you have to try to do it all in one go.  Don’t worry if the sugar goops over the edges of the molds – you can break that off later. 

Once you’ve filled all your molds (or hopefully filled them, as long as your sugar didn’t harden or crystallize before you finished), check to make sure that the ink tubes are completely enveloped in sugar – they need to have a strong base.  If you have any remaining workable sugar, pour that over the holes and weak spots in your molds. 

Immediately soak your pot in hot, soapy water.  The hardened sugar in the pot will quickly dissolve and make for easy cleaning.

Once the sugar in the molds is hardened, peel the foil away from the sugar sticks very carefully, so as not to break them.  Make sure that if any bit of foil sticks, you pull it off.  You now have your quill bases. Gently set aside.

Note: A lot of these sticks will probably break.  Make more than your target amount of quills, because about half will undoubtedly be ruined at some point.
My pile of broken quill bases. They make great suckers!

Part 4: Spinning sugar

½ cup sugar
¼ cup water
2 forks

Make sure your saucepan is all cleaned out and there is no sugar residue.  Repeat Part 2.  While the sugar is boiling, prop your quill bases up so that the sugary part hangs over open air.  Something like this works:

Propped up by the edge of a cookie sheet, anchored by a roll of aluminum foil
When the sugar is caramelized and removed from heat, take two forks and place them back to back.  Dip the prongs of the forks into the syrup and lift them high.  After the syrup has dripped off the ends a few times, it should form long thin strings, like a spider web.  If it doesn’t quite work, your mixture either didn’t reach the hard crack stage or it needs a couple more seconds to settle.

I used rubber bands to fix my forks so that they were back to back.  That way I didn’t have to worry about them slipping all the time.

Take the sugar over to your suspended quill bases.  Dip the forks into the syrup again, allow to drip for a couple seconds (this keeps from getting too many big globs of sugar all over your quills – some globs are inevitable, but if you let it drip, hold your forks high over your head, and work fast, you prevent the worst of it), then hold the forks high over your quill bases and flick your wrist back and forth as fast as you can.  The syrup dripping from the fork will immediately form near-invisible strings, which will fall over the quill bases. Continue to do this until your sugar hardens (be sure that you still don’t stir it around when you’re doing this – crystallization is a pain!). 
Crystallized sugar
Confused?  Check out this page for detailed instructions on spinning sugar and a video of someone doing it.  You can also look up "spinning sugar" on YouTube.

Note: Be careful not to burn yourself!!  This sugar is 300 degrees F, and it will stick to your skin and keep burning you until you get it off!  If this happens, be sure to immediately run the burnt spot over cold water for a minute or until it stops burning, and remove the sugar.  I actually managed to keep myself burn free through this entire endeavor, surprisingly enough, because I kept my body far away from where I was shaking the sugar.  It can be done!  The only stuff that will burn you is the big drips, not the thin strings.

You should have a large pile of sugar string over your quill bases.  Gently squish it down a little and, using scissors, cut the sugar web in between the middle of each base.  Then one at a time, very gently, wrap the sugar webs around each quill base.  You should get something resembling a thin stick of cotton candy.  Carefully squish the web around the base so that it’s flat.  Then you can shape the edges of the sugar web using your fingers and scissors to make it look like a feather.  Voila!

I hadn't shaped these when I took this pic, so they look more like cotton candy.  You just squish them flat from here and gently pinch/cut the edges to make them more feather-like.
Note: You probably will not be able to shake enough sugar over your quill bases to make them look feathery before your syrup hardens.  Count on doing two or more batches of caramelized sugar for spinning.

How big your feather looks depends on how far apart you set your bases.  The wider apart they are, the bigger the feather.  I found that the ideal width was about 4 inches apart for a practical-looking feather.  I did some much farther apart, and dyed green, and though they looked cool, they had a hard time staying up straight.

Warning: Plan to eat your sugar quills soon after you make them (in the next day or so).  I set mine aside in a sealed plastic bag for several days, and when I checked on them today all the water had evaporated out of the sugar, so each carefully spun quill crumbled to dust.  *sigh*  Lesson learned.

And that, my friends, is spun sugar.  It was a huge pain.  It took hours of caramelizing batch after batch of sugar syrup.  I had to guess and check many times before I finally figured out how to do it, and even then my quills don’t look nearly as cool as a professional cook could do.   I definitely have no inclination to undertake this project again anytime soon.  BUT I am glad I did it.  This way I can tell the world, “This is what sugar quills are supposed to look like.”


Carrie said...

Impressive - kudos to you!

Sarah said...

That is pretty cool! Did you break the candy thermometer that I bought? Because that would make 5 that I have bought that have been broken.

Rachel said...

This was the most impressive cooking blog post I've ever seen! Seriously, and I read cooking blogs! I'm totally impressed by your perseverance and awesome results. I've always wanted to make spun sugar, but lacked the necessary motivation. Thanks for doing it for me! Those feather quills are sooooo totally cool!

BTW - my candy thermometers get broken by my kids and just sitting in a drawer of utensils.