Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Pure sugars enhancing cuisine around the world: Italy
The next stop in our ‘around the world’ series is Italy. In this country, the artful use of traditionally limited ingredients of incredible quality, including pure sugars, leads to spectacular results. From baked goods and creamy gelato through to the world-famous espresso so vital to the daily lives of citizens and visitors, pure sugars are one of the underpinnings of Italian cuisine.
Italian recipes can appear deceptively simple, but don’t let that fool you – they provide some of the finest gastronomical experiences in the world. And many are enhanced by pure sugars, sometimes in unusual combinations.
Espresso: Fundamentally Italian
Italian coffee culture has been developed since the 16th Century and the subtle rules still apply today. Coffee is something to be enjoyed all day, but rather than touting a paper cup around with you it is something to be purchased and consumed at the bar. A cappuccino is still a familiar sight but only before 11 AM and is usually served with breakfast pastries.
Ordering a coffee in Italy is certainly different than ordering your typical Starbucks! Usually, it will involve an espresso and for most Italians, that means adding plenty of sugar. This sugar isn’t just white granulated sugar, either; Zucchero di canna (literal translation ‘cane sugar’) is an unrefined pure sugar that remains darker in colour due to the presence of residual molasses.
Like salt to our food, sugar can enhance the flavours of espresso. An espresso blend that is nutty, chocolatey or slightly bitter when served with a spoonful of sugar can create the perfect bittersweet flavour.
Gelato: A rich history
Translated literally as ‘frozen’ in Italian, gelato is a sweet treat like, but most definitely not, ice cream that has taken the world by storm. Popular for its often-lower calorie content, lower melting point and intense flavour compared to ice cream, this delicious Italian offering is believed to have been pioneered in the 16th century by Florence native Bernardo Buontalenti. Creating gelato to impress the Catherina dei Medici court, the positive reception his creation received saw it spread rapidly across Italy and other parts of Europe. With time and a little help from a spoon or two, it’s now a global staple.
The sugar content of gelato is extremely important, but not for the reasons you might first think. While sugar sweetens food and drink, it also acts as an anti-freezing ingredient; more sugar, more prevention of water freezing in a product into ice. Bulk ice cream producers use liquid sugars and invert sugar syrups for flavour, texture and depressing freezing points. In the case of gelato, the sugar content is carefully measured to allow it to have a soft texture that can withstand warmer serving temperatures than traditional ice cream.
Varying sugars are used in gelato production to help reach the desired blend of anti-freezing and sweetening. Most common to the gelatos we know today is sucrose, the quintessential table sugar that is extracted from sugar beet and cane. Depending on the desired flavour, texture and appearance of the gelato, it’s also common to combine muscovado and demerara, both of which are more aromatic due to the presence of molasses.
Caponata: A Sicilian specialty
Located in the ‘boot’ of Italy itself, Sicily is an autonomous Italian region that is home to distinct recipes that often have similarities to and influence from Greek cuisine. Caponata is a classic Sicilian recipe, with its origin and name remaining contested and unclear. What is known is that this dish is ultimately Sicilian in origin and has several traditional Neapolitan variations also.
Interestingly, caponata is a vegetable dish that makes clever use of sugar to provide a sweet and distinct final taste. Aubergine forms the core of the recipe, with a sweet and sour sauce based on tomatoes alongside additional vegetables such as celery, courgette, onion, pine nuts and olives – depending on who you ask!
With the sweet and sour sauce forming the heart of the final flavour, the presence of sugar is carefully balanced depending on the variation of the dish used and the desired sweetness. Zucchero di canna is often used, which can be neatly substituted for demerara sugar depending on availability. The final result? A bright, tangy vegetable dish brought together by the moreish and creamy flavour of eggplant. Wonderful!
Muscovado cookies by Luca Montersino
Born in Turin in 1973, Luca Montersino’s meteoric rise to prominence in Italian baking and cooking was impressive. Progressing from Michelin Star restaurants including the Torre Pellice and La Ciau del Tornavento, he now devotes his time to supporting pastry shops and businesses and the promotion of healthier options for the diet-conscious and food-restricted. During his career, he has been a consultant for major industrial confectioners, pastry and baked goods producers and ice cream makers.
With a passion for using only the finest of ingredients, his delicious recipe for the classic muscovado sugar cookies with his own unique twist comes straight from his book “Croissant e biscotti”, published in 2011. It is rich in pure sugars, using both demerara sugar and muscovado sugar. The result is an elegant, rich cookie with a wonderfully contrasting texture from the sprinkled demerara sugar.
Pure sugars play an important role in Italian cuisine, which benefits from the full range of features sugars deliver to different food and beverages applications, including enhancing flavour, texture, mouthfeel, crystallisation and freezing points.