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Sweetening the harvest: Sugar’s role in harvest festival foods
Traditionally, in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, the end of autumn was harvest time. Today, despite our increasingly urban lives people still celebrate this time of year with feasts, parades, and traditional sweet treats that feature all kinds of sugar, from molasses to syrups and crystallines. Read on to explore how sugar weaves a thread through the shared culinary history of Europe and North America at harvest time.
New puddings for the New World
The first ‘Thanksgiving’ – probably the most famous harvest festival in modern western culture – took place in New England in November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful. They held a feast and invited their Native American allies, the Wampanoag tribe, for a festival that lasted for three days. Today, many New-Englanders’ Thanksgiving tables feature Indian Pudding, a cornmeal dish that blends New and Old World ingredients.
Indian Pudding began to take shape when First Nation peoples showed settlers how to grind corn to make porridge with boiling water. Back then, the colonists referred to the ground corn as ‘Indian meal’: they ate it as a standalone savoury dish with salt and meat or fish. As milk, molasses and spices became available, Indian Pudding became a dessert. In time, additional ingredients like butter, cinnamon, ginger, eggs, and sometimes even raisins or nuts were added. Today, it usually comes served with ice cream or thick cream, but the star of the show has to be the dark, sticky molasses that gives Indian Pudding its signature smoky intense flavour.
Molasses: a dark, decadent sweetener
Because New England was a stop in the ‘Triangle Trade’, 18th century New Englanders found themselves with an abundance of molasses on their hands. According to the Massachussets Historical Society, the region imported too much cheap cane molasses from the ‘sugar islands’ to make rum, and not wanting to waste it, they used the excess molasses to sweeten many dishes you can now find on Thanksgiving tables all across the US, from Anadama Bread to baked beans.
There are a few theories out there for where Anadama Bread – a buttery, cornmeal-flecked loaf which is more like a cake due to its deep, rich sweetness from a healthy dose of molasses – got its name. Perhaps the most famous involves a fisherman, who, angry with his wife, Anna, for serving him cornmeal and molasses every evening, one day adds flour and yeast to his porridge, then bakes and eats the result, while cursing, ‘Anna, damn her.’
Giant German pretzels made sticky with golden syrup
Returning back over the Atlantic in Germany, Martinstag (Saint Martin’s Day) marks the end of the harvest season on 11 November. Saint Martin himself is known for his love for children and the poor, so on Martinstag night, German children walk in processions through their towns to a large bonfire, where sweet, soft pretzels called Martinsbrezeln are passed to them.
The Martinsbrezeln are brushed with melted butter before and after baking and then doused with vanilla and cinnamon laced confectioners’ (powdered white crystalline) sugar. The yeast dough is enriched with milk, butter, sour cream and a type of regional sugar beet molasses called Rübenkraut, which is similar, but not precisely the same as our golden syrup.
A sweet Jewish new year
The Jewish new year, known as Rosh Hashanah’(literally ‘head of the year’) is celebrated with an array of sugary treats to signify what people hope will be the sweet new year ahead. It falls in September, which – in many parts of the US and Europe, where much of the Jewish diaspora live – is peak apple season. Because – like most traditional cultures – European Jews made the most of the fruit of the land when it appeared, Rosh Hashanah dinner tables are apple-rich.
A Jewish apple cake takes pride of place at many a Rosh Hashanah feast. It’s a simple, stir-together affair, using oil, not butter, to stick to Kosher laws, and at least two cups of granulated, kosher sugar. Bakers often use light muscovado sugar for its caramelly taste and some add a bit of golden syrup too, to give a hint of decadent stickiness, as the leading Jewish newspaper in the UK, the Jewish Chronicle, recommends. Usually baked in a circular angel-food-cake pan, the shape means more extreme heat is exposed to more of the cake, making the edges caramelize and crisp up, like the edges of a brownie.
How to turbo charge those crispy cake edges is one of the best kept secrets of the baking world, and it involves – you’ve guessed it – sugar. When professional bakers want to get a crunchy crust around the sides of a cake, after they grease their pan with butter, oil, or cooking spray, they coat the inside of it with sugar.
While in the oven all those individual granules of sugar will melt, and as the cake cools, that sugar will reset into a paper-thin layer of crispy, caramelized goodness.
Another reason to celebrate sugar!