Welcome to the Thursday Tangent. If you’d like to wander into the question of what to do when you meet an author, just page back. Meanwhile, Alan and I are discussing a sweet topic.
JANE: One thing I enjoy about my cookbook of British tea treats is how even the
terms I can easily figure out seem more exotic. For example, the book calls for “vanilla essence.” We call that vanilla extract which sounds very practical and rather scientific.
On the other hand, to be fair, “bicarbonate of soda” sounds very medicinal. Our usual term is “baking soda.”
One recipe that is particularly evocative is for a fruit gingerbread. This must be a very sweet (rather than spicy) version because it calls for not only black treacle, but also golden syrup and caster sugar, whatever that might be. Oh! And that’s only for the bread itself. The icing calls for icing sugar, more golden syrup, and crystallized ginger.
So, what is black treacle? Does treacle come in other colors?
ALAN: As it happens, I learned all about syrup and treacle as a by-product of my organic chemistry courses. Don’t worry; I won’t blind you with science.
JANE: Go ahead. I missed chemistry entirely. (Maybe someday I’ll wander back to that story.) I need to be educated.
ALAN: “Syrup” is a general term for any gooey, viscous, highly concentrated sugar solution. You can make your own syrups by dissolving vast amounts of sugar in water and I believe there are recipes that call for exactly that. Treacle, on the other hand, is the name given to syrups that are specifically a by-product of the process of refining sugar.
Depending on exactly how you treat the raw sugar cane (or sugar beet) you can end up with a very black treacle (sometimes called molasses) or a much lighter and sweeter amber coloured treacle which, confusingly, is called golden syrup. Why is it called golden syrup rather than golden treacle? I don’t know. Why is a raven like a writing desk? It’s just the way that languages work.
JANE: Black treacle is molasses! Revelation!
All I remember about golden syrup is that Paddington Bear was addicted to it. When I was a kid, I thought it was canned honey, but I gather it’s something else entirely.
ALAN: Golden syrup does look rather like clear honey and the taste is similar. You can generally substitute one for the other in recipes. And I suppose that’s why Paddington Bear liked it so much. After all, if Winnie the Pooh liked honey…
JANE: And caster sugar? To me, “casters” are those little wheels your chair rolls around on. How do you get sugar from those?
ALAN: Oh that’s easy. You sprinkle sugar on the floor and roll the furniture around on it so as to grind it very finely.
Actually, you don’t – a “caster” is really a very fine sieve or sprinkler. Caster sugar is very, very, very fine-grained sugar that can pass easily through the caster, so that it can be sprinkled on the top of your baking. Sort of like a salt shaker, except it’s for sugar and the holes are a lot smaller. My grandmother had a beautiful silver Georgian caster of which she was extremely fond. I imagine the gadget is called a caster because it lets you cast your sugar around with gay abandon. Because caster sugar is so fine grained, it also dissolves very quickly which comes in handy sometimes.
JANE: Interesting. My international dictionary didn’t know about the sieve-type caster. I believe in this country very fine sugar is often called “bartender’s sugar,” probably because it has to be to properly dissolve in cold drinks.
Now, last time you mentioned you didn’t much like sweet drinks. Is there any sweet that has won you over?
ALAN: No, not really. I seldom indulge in baked goods. But there’s one exception to that, the thought of which always makes my mouth water and brings back many happy memories. Parkin is a moist, sticky cake made with oatmeal, ginger and treacle. In Yorkshire we eat it mainly on bonfire night – 5th November, Guy Fawkes:
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot…
We used to call the celebration plot night. My childhood memories are full of cold, dark November evenings, with everybody well wrapped up in coats, scarves and gloves, our breath steaming in the chill. There’s a huge bonfire burning and sparks are flying everywhere. Potatoes are baking in the hot ashes, trays of parkin are being passed round and the air is full of the smell of gunpowder from the fireworks…
Strangely, I don’t recall eating parkin at any other time of the year. Only on plot night.
JANE: I’m the peculiar baker who can pass up sweets – although I like dark chocolate almost too much. However, Jim does like sweets, so I have an outlet for my desire to bake. I make him oatmeal cookies and banana bread on a regular basis. When I’m doing a local book signing, I usually make either brownies or cookies for those people who’ve been kind enough to show up.
Now, your earlier mention of molasses reminded me of something interesting about the production of sugar – it leads to the production of rum.
ALAN: Yes – all the sugar producing countries have a very profitable sideline in rum. In my part of the world, the Pacific Island nation of Fiji is a sugar producer and they make the most appalling rum you ever tasted. Every time I go there, I make sure to buy a bottle because it is so unbelievably cheap. But it really is quite undrinkable except when mixed with enough Coke to drown the taste. I dislike Coke as well (a singularly horrible drink) but the combination of the two revolting things turns out to be marinally less revolting than either of them separately. On a good day you might even call it palatable. It’s probably something to do with chemistry again.
Robin and I have actually just spent a fortnight luxuriating in the sun on a Pacific island. It was our mid-winter holiday. Let me tell you all about it…
JANE: Let me run and refill my coffee mug…