Known World Spotlight
Casting Sugar Figures
By THL Johnnae llyn Lewis, CE
Today we are accustomed to seeing professional sugar artists create stunning sugar items for various public events and televised challenges. Cakes are decorated with pulled sugar flower blossoms, Halloween pumpkins are blown from isomalt, a type of sugar substitute dating from the 1960s; decorated Christmas trees with fabulous ornaments appear from what were once just blobs of molten sugar. How many of us have wondered: “Could I do that? Maybe I could do that? What does it take to do that? I want to do that!” The most intricate blown and pulled sugar works cannot be easily or cheaply accomplished at home, but one can heat up or boil a sugar mixture and cast or pour sugar items in molds. For those seeking to create such items, here are a few notes based on personal experience.
Sugar molding or pouring or casting sugar was widely practiced at various courts during the Renaissance, but the practice is documentable from centuries earlier. There is a recipe from the 13th C Andalusian manuscript known as An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook. Some years ago, food historian Charles Perry translated it, with the encouragement of Society member and medieval culinary researcher David Friedman | Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, KSCA, OL, OP. In the Andalusian recipe, we find the following instructions:
Cast Figures of Sugar. Throw on the sugar a like amount of water or rosewater and cook until its consistency is good. Empty it into the mould and make of it whatever shape is in the mold, the places of the “eyebrow” and the “eye” and what resembles the dish you want, because it comes out of the mould in the best way. Then decorate it with gilding and whatever you want of it. If you want to make a tree or a figure of a castle, cut it piece by piece. Then decorate it section by section and stick it together with mastic until you complete the figure you want, if God wills. An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook.
Moving ahead in time and to England, there are notable sugar working recipes in the British Library’s Harleian MS 2378. The recipes are dated circa 1395 CE and use the olden characters of the thorn and the yogh. The thorn roughly represents “th”; the yogh originally indicated a “g” and over time came to be a “y.” They are represented here as: þ and 3. The transcribed section begins with a recipe for clarifying sugar before proceeding for a long recipe for creating “Anneys in counfyte.”
The next recipe, in abbreviated format and as transcribed by Hieatt and Butler instructs how the boiled sugar solution is to be made.
#13 To make suger plate.
Take a lb. of fayr clarefyde suger and put it in a panne and sette it on a furneys, & gar it sethe. And asay þi suger between þi fingers and þi thombe, and if it parte fro þi finger and þi thombe þan it is inow sothen, if it be potte suger. And if it be finer suger, it will haue a litell lower decoccioun. [H&B, p 152]
The resulting hot syrup is poured or cast onto a marble slab to cool and set up. After a recipe for the ever popular “penydes,” we come to “#15: Ymages in suger” which continues with the advice that this sugar mixture while hot can be poured into molds.
#15 To make ymages in suger.
And if 3e will make any ymages or any oþer þing in suger þat is casten in moldys, sethe þem in þe same man ere þat þe plate is, and poure it into þe moldes in þe same manere þat þe plate is pouryde, but loketh 3oure mold be anoyntyd before wyth a litell oyle of almaundes. [H&B, p 153]
The recipe continues with advice on coloring the sugar item, suggesting gold, silver, red, green, yellow and so on, and how they can be created. It ends with this advice:
And in þis maner mow 3e caste alle manere froytes also, and colour it wyth þe same colour as diuerse as 3e will, and þer þat þe blossom ofþat per of apel schull stand put þerto a clowe & þer þe stalke schall stand makes þat of kanell. [H&B 153]
One can experiment and work out a recipe based upon the original 13th or 14th C recipes cited above or even try one’s hand at Sir Hugh Plat’s recipe from 1600/1602 in his work Delightes For Ladies. Such attempts can present a number of challenges, as was discovered by the gentlemen who recreate historical cookery at Hampton Court Palace in England. They are known collectively and colloquially as The Tudor Cooks, and they spent a good part of the recent 2016/2017 Christmas holidays attempting to cast a figure of Queen Elizabeth I in molten sugar. The exercise with various failures experienced along the way were well-documented in the blog and Twitter account The Tudor Cook, (the latter a personal project of Richard Fitch, interpretation co-ordinator for the Historic Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.) In short, the culinary team ran into problems with humidity, dampness, the sugar not coming up to casting temperature, the sugar figure sticking to the mold and not releasing, etc. etc. If one works with boiling and poured sugar enough, one gains an understanding of the medium, but when first starting out, of course there’s no such depth of experience. Given enough time and effort, and by keeping a log of successes, amounts, humidity, and failures, most could over time — as The Tudor Cooks eventually did — manage to pour and create a cast item of sugar using the 14th C recipes and Plat’s mentioned above.
However, if you want to cast a sugar figure for a given event at a given time in uncertain weather, you need a reliable recipe with proper amounts which works in modern kitchens, using affordable ingredients which are easily procured. To save both time and money, a good modern recipe is the one given by Bo Friberg in his classic volume The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef. The recipe calls for:
1 cup or 8 ounces water; 2 pounds 8 ounces granulated sugar; I cup or 8 ounces Karo or glucose syrup.
In simple terms, proceed as follows: Place in a heavy weight pan of more than sufficient size as the mixture will boil up. The ingredients are heated slowly to 305 degrees F (152 C). [Any coloring agent will be added at 265 degrees when heating or when cooling. I only use food safe colors.] Plunge bottom of pan into cold water to stop cooking. As soon as bubbles quit coming to the surface the syrup is ready to pour into molds. Flavorings can be added at this stage. Figures should cool in the mold but not harden completely as the pieces should give a little. This may take 24 hours or even longer. Keep in mind you may not be able to safely move the mold while it is cooling. Pour and leave in place.
Perhaps it goes without saying but I will say it …. You also need to use a professional calibrated candy thermometer, and never test a hot syrup between your thumb and finger, as did the sugar masters of centuries past. Before attempting to pour hot sugar or work with a recipe such as this you need to plan ahead. It is a dangerous activity; burns from a boiling sugar syrup are no joke! Be cautious and hyper- careful! Keeping a bowl of ice water at hand to treat burns is something experienced sugar artists do.
Does a recipe need to be doubled? I often do multiple batches in order to ensure success. A large mold may require a double batch to start with; have extra ingredients on hand. Read any and all instructions which come with the mold. You may or may not need to very lightly oil or spray oil the molds. That part depends on the mold. There are also professional mold release sprays (not all are food safe) which may be necessary for an easy mold release. Stabilize the mold in some way so the mold doesn’t shift and leak hot syrup.
We used to watch our grandmothers or grandfathers handle hot candy mixtures; these days you can watch instructional videos on the Internet, and I’d advise some study there. By the way altitude and humidity can alter the results. This is a skill, above all, which needs to be practiced, and yes, it works better in dry conditions. Keep a notebook or log of the results and recipes.
Note the use of the Glucose or corn syrup. This is now known as an interference agent or as a candy doctor. It helps ensure the final product or creation is clear and resembles glass and does not end up grainy or simply revert back to sugar. Some historical and modern recipes call for rose water, vinegar or lemon juice as their agent, but I tend to use glucose syrup or corn syrup. Why? It helps to ensure success, and when I am pouring or casting sugar, I am after success the first time. (I asked about the Tudor Cooks’ Sugar Queen while visiting in 2019 and was told they had used lemon juice as their interference agent.)
In our period of interest as now, bakeries, households, and individuals bought their molds from professionals. English food historian and author Peter Brears notes molds might have been made of stone, wood, pewter, even alabaster or plaster of Paris. [p67] Cooks, such as England’s John Murrell in the early 17th C, even advertised their molds and cutters for sale in their confectionary books. Food historian Ivan Day writes extensively about molds in his article on “Sugar sculpture” in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Speaking about subtleties, he writes: “Carved wooden molds were frequently used in their construction. A probate inventory of 1551 of the goods belonging to a deceased York cook called William Thornton lists an impressive array of these prints (or molds): “a print called Sampson; a print with Fleurdelice; small leache print; print with Lion and Unicorn; standing print with hart and hind; print with one knot; close print with birds….” (p. 691)
In Renaissance Italy professional artists’ workshops supplied items cast in bronze, but also cast items of sugar for festivals, weddings, state funerals and other notable occasions. The spectacular cast sugar items created for Marie de Medici’s 1600 CE wedding to Henri IV are described in the 2015 volume Dolci Trionfi e Finissime Piegature. The sugar sculptures were re-imagined and recreated for a Palatine Gallery display in Florence in 2015 and this is the outstanding exhibit catalog of that exhibit.
My advice is to follow historical practice and buy your molds, especially if you are just starting out. Buy something suitable — professional weight preferred — which can handle a very hot mixture and not deform. If the molded item is intended to be eaten, buy food-safe molds and use food-safe ingredients. If the item is for display only, an appropriate heavyweight but non-food safe mold can be used. Not every plastic item holds its shape when a 300 degrees F syrup is poured into it. Do not gamble with the possibility of resulting mess or burns, should a mold deform.
For the Green Man, I actually used a mold from GoMolds.com intended for a concrete garden stone. My sugar creation was a display item and never intended to be eaten. The Green Man was created originally in November 2015 for a contest where the theme was “Green.” I took it back home, stored it in a humidity-controlled environment over the winter, and sent it off in June 2016 to be displayed at the Arts and Sciences Expo at the SCA’s 50 Year event. This proves, I guess, that these objects can last! (The Italians in the 16th C often recycled their large size sugar items. The workshops in effect rented them out as needed.) Over the passage of months, the Greenman had darkened into a darker more uniform green and the edges were not as sharp. It was highlighted on Facebook’s 50 Year page where someone asked if it wasn’t a green lime Jell-o mold, before it was corrected as being made of cast sugar.
In November 2020, I repoured the Greenman mold to create an Autumn version of the Greenman. This time with help from my son, we colored various small amounts of syrups and poured them to create a face with far more colors and depth. What became apparent is that we needed more practice with the colors. Once added, we couldn’t tell how they were shading because the mold itself is black. It was like pouring into a dark pond. It was an interesting experiment, and we learned that pouring and coloring hot syrups was nothing like all those in fashion lacquer color pours which are ever so popular on YouTube.
Another Sugar Project
I tried off and on for a number of years to create a poured sugar sphere using small bowls or cake molds, all with no success. I finally broke down and bought a professional two-part spherical mold along with a pair of dragons. I’ve cast several pure sugar spheres since that time. I even experimented with Isomalt to the tune of it taking $20 USD worth just to cast the sphere and two dragons. (This is about four times the cost of using just sugar.) It takes more than 24 hours for the mold to cure and harden. It’s worth every cent, and I do not regret the investment.
Smaller Sugar Figures
The items which today we call lollipops or suckers also have a medieval antecedent. In the Ottoman Turkish Empire “hollow moulded figures made of boiled sugar on sticks were popular” sweets, according to Mary Isin [pp57-60]. The Ottoman sweets even appear in an illustration, commonly called “The Seller of Sweets” from the early 17th C. [Yerasimos, p. 229] These sweets can be created today using two-part molds. I did such a batch of flavored and vividly colored sweets in 2006 for an Ottoman-themed Crown banquet. I used John Wright cast iron molds, but one could use any appropriate modern sucker or lollipop mold.
Flat Cast Figures
Sugar items can be created in flat forms. Confectioner Jacques Torres’ instructions on how one may create molds using rolled-out Play Doh modeling clay appear in his books and on the Food Network website. These instructions accompanied a recipe for chocolate lolli-pops, but the directions work equally well when casting sugar items:
Using those instructions and a cardboard template of a dragon, I’ve thrice created the Midrealm’s dragon in sugar. It started by pouring the dragon and its wings, using Play Doh as the mold. I then took the dragon and its wings and layered it to make a large flat sugar subtletie. I have the right square pan, oddly enough an old ceramic microwave browning pan. These days I use non-stick foil to line the pan. I poured a layer of hot amber-colored syrup, let it cool, laid the already cast body of the sugar dragon and its wings on the now-firm base layer, and then encased the dragon in another layer of syrup. Sometimes this works without incident, but of course the second or top layer can be too hot and melt the dragon or image, meaning that one could be up re-pouring the entire subtletie at midnight. Yes, this actually happened to me, and it is only funny in retrospect. Re-casting and pouring hot sugar at 1 AM is not too be encouraged. But yes, it worked on the second try. I strongly suggest that if you are transporting the completed item, let it travel in the pan. Once you’ve reached your destination safely, the item can be taken out at the event and placed on a suitable tray. The second time I cast and donated the sugar dragon as Crown feast subtletie, it was dubbed the “Kingdom Jolly Rancher” before it was broken up and served to the populace at the banquet.
n conclusion, I would emphasize care and caution but would also like to say that pouring or casting sugar items in molds is great fun! Happy sugar experimenting!
|Brears, Peter. “Rare Conceits and Strange Delightes: The Practical Aspects of Culinary Sculpture.” ‘Banquetting Stuffe’. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. [Paper given at the first Leeds Symposium, 1986] See also his volumes Cooking and Dining in Tudor & Stuart England (2015) and Cooking & Dining in Medieval England (2008) for information on casting sugar and more on moulds.|
|Curye on Inglische. English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury). Edited by Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. [Early English Text Society, SS.8] Hieatt in The Culinary Recipes of Medieval England (2013) produces these recipes in modern English.|
|Day, Ivan. “Sugar sculpture.” The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Ed: Darra Goldstein. Oxford: OUP, 2015.|
|Dolci Trionfi e Finissime Piegature. Sculture in Zucchero… Firenze: Sillabe, 2015. [In Italian]|
|Isin, Mary. Sherbet & Spice. The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts. London: I.B. Taurus, 2013.|
|Torres, Jacques. “Chocolate Lollipops.” Foodnetwork.com. Scripps Networks Digital. N.d. Web. Accessed March 3 2017.|
|Yerasimos, Marianna. 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine. [Trans. Into English: Sally Bradbrook.] Istanbul: Boyut, 2005.|
|“The Sugar Queen – Part 3 – Boiled Sugar…Finally!” Blog post. Cooking the Books – Historic Cookery at Hampton Court Palace -unofficially. N.p., 11 Jan. 2017. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. http://tudorcook.co.uk/blog/. See also the December 2016 and January 2017|
Twitter posts about the project at: Fitch, Richard. “@tudorcook on Twitter.” Twitter. Twitter, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. https://mobile.twitter.com/Tudorcook.
The mentioned recipes in full, citations, and additional documentation may also appear in full at my blog:
The mentioned recipes in full, citations, and additional documentation may also appear in full at my blog:
[Holloway, Johnna.] Johnnae. “Subtleties&Stuffe: Blog on Sugar. Notsocommonplace. Blogspot. GBlogger, Web.
http://commonplaceboke.blogspot.com/2015/04/subtleties-ymages-in-suger.html 16 April, 2015.
http://commonplaceboke.blogspot.com/2015/04/subtleties-to-make-suger-plate.html 16 April 2015.
http://commonplaceboke.blogspot.com/2017/02/subtleties-cast-figures-of-sugar.html 22 February 2017.
Perry, Charles. “Cast Figures of Sugar (from Andalusian Cookbook).” An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century. David Friedman, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.
Plat, Hugh, Sir. Delightes for ladies to adorne their persons, tables, closets, and distillatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters. London: 1602. [on EEBO]
Fasolt, Nancy. Clear Toy Candy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2010.
Hartel, Richard W, & AnnaKate Hartel. Candy Bites, The Science of Sweets. NY: Springer, 2014. All about the science of candies plus information on candy doctors.
Notter, Ewald. The Art of the Confectioner. Sugarwork and Pastillage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. Expensive, so loan from a library. Chapter 3 is on “Sugar casting.”
Friberg, Bo. The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef. [various editions. Check out at a library. New edition has been promised.]
Jacques Torres talks about using Play Doh to create molds in his 1997 book Dessert Circus. Also see
Petersen, Jessica, et al. “Sugar Work Lesson 1: Casting Sugar.” Pie of the Tiger, 7 June 2013, pieofthetiger.com/2009/04/sugar-work-lesson-1-casting-sugar/. [An example of a well done blog account.]
The Chicago School of Mold Making offers professional molds plus lots of informative articles and videos on working with sugar. http://chicagomoldschool.com/
My article on working with molds “A Few Thoughts on Molds and Replica Molds”
appears in earlier issue of The Fret Knot. https://altavia.sca-caid.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/2016-3-Fret-Knot.pdf
This article appeared in Tournaments Illuminated Issue 202, Second Quarter, 2017. This “Featured Article” entitled “Adventures in Sugar Casting” appears on pp 29-33. It has been revised for this publication in 2021.
Contributed by THL Johnnae llyn Lewis, CE ©2017, Revised and expanded January 2021. J.K. Holloway
Photos used in this article are printed with the permission of P Holloway.