Biographers of Harriet Tubman always recount an incident from Harriet Tubman’s youth, in which a young Harriet was
discovered by the mistress of the manor stealing a sugar cube. Realizing the woman planned to beat her, Harriet ran away and hid in a pig sty for about four days. According to Harriet, she was unaccustomed to having sweets and so was tempted by the sugar cubes so nearby. Little Harriet’s lack of access to sugar and the sweet treats in which its used was not specific to her particular oppressed station of life at the time. For centuries after sugar was first processed by people in India, about 500 BC, it was a scarce and valued commodity available mostly to wealthy people. Few people could enjoy savory foods in which sugar plays an important role, much less desserts and other sweet treats. Eventually technological advances allowed sugar producers and the sugar industry to easily increase sugar supplies so that its ubiquitous in the world today. I count as a blessing that sugar is so readily available in our world today. In fact, I count as a blessing not only sugar’s omnipresence, but also its availability in so many varieties. Finally, I count as a blessing that sugar is gluten-free.
Technology has made our world a smaller place, by making available in stores and online products that before the late 20th century were difficult for people to find. Now, instead of just Imperial brown sugar and refined white sugar on grocery shelves (and yes, those were the only two types available when I was growing up), the baking aisle in grocery stores stock everything from natural sugars such as palm and monk fruit, to liquid sweeteners such as agave and coconut nectars. Of this plethora of sweetener choices, the one sugar that I’ve fallen in love with, and can’t get enough of is that natural, minimally processed brown sugar from Mexico: piloncillo. I’m also fond of the form of this sugar from South America called panela (a word that, in Mexico, refers to a type of cheese). Either form of this natural brown sugar, with its complex caramel-ly, molasses-y flavor, is delicious and adds character to whatever dish to which its added. Interestingly, piloncillo is not as sweet as one would think, possibly because it is as about as minimally processed as a sugar can be. The molasses flavor of this natural sweetener is so pronounced that it makes itself known when added to a dish, rather than disappearing into the dish adding sweetness, but no character.
You need to know a couple of points about piloncillo, though, if you plan to buy and use it (and you should plan to – you will be SO happy you did). If your local grocery doesn’t carry it, check your local Mexican or South American food store before ordering it online. In our local HEBs, eight ounce cones of piloncillo sell for 94¢, which means I can buy a pound of piloncillo for under two dollars. On Amazon.com, piloncillo costs many times that per pound. The other point is piloncillo is pressed into cone (the most common shape) or square molds when after it has been boiled and the cane juice evaporated. Getting the sugar from this cone so that it can be used in recipes or beverages is rather difficult. I found helpful (as well as entertaining) tips for getting sugar from the cone on this site, and this one.
Although I’m using piloncillo in just about everything these days, I especially like the depth of flavor this sugar adds to caramel sauce. Caramel sauce is rather dangerous for me to have in the house, for I have no will-power against the siren song that permeates the house as it flows out of the sauce’s container, through the refrigerator door. Alas, I don’t even try to fight the temptation. I often substitute the rich, creamy, flavorful sauce for sugar to sweeten my coffee. I pour it over ice cream, drizzle it over the filling of my peach pies, and stir it into hot chocolate. I use it in savory dishes, as well, and I’m not the only one who uses caramel sauce in savory dishes, either! This piloncillo caramel sauce, in addition to being so unbelievably delicious, is easy to make. You do have to be careful not to burn it. This sugar’s dark color makes knowing by sight when the sugar starts to caramelize difficult; using an instant read (one that reads the temperature in 3 -4 seconds) thermometer will aid you in knowing the right time to add the butter to the mixture. All is not lost, however, if you do burn the caramel sauce. Apparently burnt caramel is a thing, now. Ask me how I know about uses for burnt caramel . . . .
- 1 cup organic dehydrated cane syrup (or other granulated sugar)
- 1 cup grated piloncillo sugar
- 12 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup whipping cream, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon extract of choice, optional
- In a medium to large heavy pot, mix both sugars. Stir sugars frequently over medium-high heat, until it melts. It will clump before it melts; clumping is normal. Keep stirring and little by little the clumps will melt into a smooth liquid. At this point stop stirring the mixture. Swirl it instead, to keep the mixture from seizing. Piloncillo has a dark color; the usual color test for the readiness of caramel won't work well. When the color of the mixture is mostly uniform (a dark bronze), use an instant read thermometer to gauge when to add the butter to the caramelized sugar. When the temperature reaches 345 - 350F, remove the pot from the heat and add the butter all at once. The mixture will boil up; just keep stirring until the butter is thoroughly mixed into the caramel sauce. Gradually add the cream to the caramel sauce, stirring until smooth. Stir the extract at this point, if desired, and stir until smooth. Pour the caramel sauce into a mason jar and store in the refrigerator.