Homemade Cotton Candy
Cotton Candy is not just for carnivals anymore. In fact, turns out, it's becoming downright fashionable. According to this Boston Globe article, this early 20th century treat is getting a gourmet spin (spin, get it? spin?) in preparations like the $16 cotton candy drink at LA's restaurant Bazaar, to chef Lydia Shire's experiments with flavoring at her Boston restaurant Towne.
In my last post we talked about a newly released book on working with sugar by Gesine Bullock-Prado, called Sugarbaby. After being sent a review copy, I immediately fell for Bullock-Prado's witty recipe head notes. I also mentioned that the book takes you through the several stages of cooking sugar, providing recipes for each stage. For more on the book, see that first post. Because today, we're going to talk about the hard-crack stage and, yes, making home made cotton candy. As in cotton candy at home, without a machine.
The book is divided into sections according to the stage of sugar with which it is dealing. And each section begins with a description of what you can expect to see, hear and smell at that particular stage. For the stage at which you can make cotton candy, the sugar and corn syrup is pretty much as hot as you're going to get with sugar. So, umm, be careful. Bullock-Prado says that if you were to drop a bit of the syrup into cold water at this stage is would produce "rock-hard, crackling threads that break easily". But since you're going to be using a candy thermometer (a piece of equipment that's pretty much indispensable for this kind of project) you won't have to worry about actually testing it.
So home made cotton candy without a machine. First off, let me be clear that this is NOT the light and fluffy cotton candy that you need a several thousand dollar piece of specialized equipment to achieve. This is essentially spun sugar curled around a stick. But if you get your technique down, you can manage some pretty fine threads of spun sugar. It just takes some practice, which is something I could use more of when it comes to this recipe.
Instead of a machine, you're going to use what Bullock-Prado calls a "decapitated whisk", which is simply the least expensive whisk you can find, with the tines snipped at the top by a wire-cutter. So instead of a balloon shape, you'll have what R called "whiskers". You should bend the 'whiskers' out a little so they're further apart than they appear in the picture. That should help prevent them from clumping and sticking together. Here's a photo:
My first stick of cotton candy was abysmal because I held the whisk too close to the parchment paper (1 foot away is recommended) and I didn't swing it back and forth fast enough to really get thin strands. In fact, I'm not sure I ever reach optimal swinging speed, and I'd be more conscious of the need for quickness next time. But really, you do need to hold the whisk well above the table.
Another tip I found to help, which Bullock-Prado doesn't mention, is that you shouldn't wait until you have enough spun sugar for a completed cotton candy. Rather, fling some sugar around, then wrap it around your stick quickly before it cools and prop the stick up in a class container. Fling some more sugar around, and add another layer. Repeat until you're happy with the size and look of your cotton candy. If you try to wait to roll it just once, in my experience, the sugar will harden too much and be difficult to roll.
Also, be sure to let the sugar drip back into the bowl for a moment before you start flinging, in order to avoid glops of sugar (you'll notice some of my glops in the pictures, but trust me, my earlier attempts were much gloppier).
Again, I want to warn you that this is not going to be the light and fluffy cotton candy that you really do need a machine to get. So don't come back and complain about that, because you've been warned. But it is a really fun project, and definitely something different to attempt. Plus, it will help you hone your spun sugar skills so that if you ever have to decorate a French croquembouche, you'll be all set!
UPDATE: I should have been aware of this, but there is a companion site to the book where you can find all sorts of additional photos, tips and tricks. That Gesine really looks out for us! Here's the post on cotton candy. I'll also add that I flavored my cotton candy with about 4 teaspoons of crème de cassis because I have a bottle lying around that I want to use up. That's in part what gave mine that golden hue, but it's also a result of my overcooking the sugar just a bit. Be sure to check out Gesine's blog post about trouble shooting cotton candy for how to prevent that.
Homemade Cotton Candy
Excerpted (with permission) from Sugarbaby by Gesine Bullock-Prado, 2011. Stewart, Tabori & Chang
Makes 8 cotton candies
Sugar 800 grams/4 cups
Corn syrup 240 ml/1 cup
Water 40 m/1 cup
Salt 1.5 grams/1/4 teaspoon
Raspberry extract (0r any flavor you like) 5 ml/1 teaspoon
pink (or any other color) food coloring (optional) 2 drops
1. In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup, water and salt. Stir until the sugar is melted. With a damp pastry brush, wipe down the sides of the pan to prevent stray sugar crystals from forming.
2. Clip on a candy thermometer, stop stirring, and heat to 320F (160C). Pour the molten liquid into a shallow heatproof container. Add the extract and food coloring (if using) and stir well.
3. Line your work table with parchment. I also spread parchment on the floor around the table to catch any stray bits of flying sugar.
4. Dip your decapitated whisk into the sugar syrup and hold it over the pot to let the sugar drip back into the container for a second. Holding the whisk a foot (30 cm) above the parchment, swing the whisk back and forth so that thin strands of sugar fall on the paper. Repeat this a few more times until you have a nice nest of spun sugar.
5. Immediately wrap the cotton candy around large lollipop sticks (if you wait too long, the sugar will become brittle and won't bend around the stick). Eat immediately or seal in air-tight containers - any moisture will make the cotton candy soggy.