I’m working on a kingdom A&S project right now. It’s a sugar sculpture. Sugar work is something I have experience with and don’t do so that people don’t ask me to make cakes for every occasion. I’ve been warming back up to it thanks to my best friend’s project on Ottoman confections (which got a perfect score at Gulf!). I’ve been making flowers to get back in the groove before delving into period recipes. Medieval tables would have been graced with sugar sculptures in the shapes of familiar objects (gloves, keys, a shoe), fruits and spices, buildings, animals, tiny people, and more. There was even a trend in the Renaissance to make plates and goblets of sugar paste (called sugar plate) that would be painted like majolica, eaten off of, then smashed at the end and eaten. It dries that hard.
These are made with sugar paste or gum paste, which dries rock hard over a few days. You can then color them with powders or even a little pigment mixed with gum arabic and some alcohol or water. The medieval recipes are pretty much the same as modern ones, except most modern ones use Gum-Tex or tylose powder in place of gum tragacanth. Even the methods for working with gum paste are the same, though the advent of silicone baking supplies has certainly made life better when it comes to molding shapes and adding textures.
We haven’t done a big competition project together, blog people. Get ready to learn about how Peeps rolls in project mode. I’ve been doing all the research late into the night reading and learning. There are maybe two days in the last two weeks that I haven’t worked on this. I’m and re-reading while I eat breakfast and lunch. I got out the big mortar whose pestle is literally the size of a baby’s arm so that I can hand grind and sift ingredients. I hunted down the right kind of cinnamon and sugar and spices and fruits. I put on my art bandoliers, locked and loaded my research binder, and I got ready to rumble.
Here’s one of a couple of recipes for the stuff from The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597 by Thomas Dawson:
“Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuyce of Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a little of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it be come like water, then put to it the iuyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to powder, and cast it into the morter by a litle and a litle, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil.”
Dragant is tragacanth. You reconstitute it in rosewater then beat it so that it’s a smooth gel, then blend it with lemon juice, egg white, and powdered sugar. Once it’s a sturdy dough, you turn it out onto a board dusted with powdered sugar and knead it until it’s elastic and not too soft (like stretchy playdough). People’s notes expand this to go with a pound of powdered sugar (a box), so the “size of a beane” of gum trag turns into a teaspoon.
Not too hard, right? I’m making a building, so I mixed a bunch of cinnamon that I ground up into mine to give it a sandstone color. Adding spices, finely ground herbs, and flowers is a period way to tint your gum paste. I should be good to jump into project land. I even have two forms of gum trag going – one finely ground then reconstituted (so expensive! it must be great!), the other from the raw lumps of gum that I found at my local Indian market for a reasonable price (Krishna Mart Grocery, I love you). A teaspoon of ether of them will take enough water to fill a coffee mug 3/4 of the way with gel.
So after I spend two hours grinding up four oz. of cinnamon bark in a mortar and pestle, spend another hour hand mixing this paste that is taking more, and more, and MORE sugar to deal with alllllllll the trag gel, my arms are noodles. Sad little arm noodles who stupidly did this after arm day at the gym. I seal it up, make a little test disc to dry overnight, and call it a day. It wasn’t as elastic as it should have been. For the teaspoon of expensive powdered gum that I reconstituted, I wound up using close to a kilo of sugar to make a paste. I should have used…oh….1/6th of that at the most, more like 1/10th. But I live in a humid place now, and that makes things weird when sugar is involved.
This morning? I have a delicious, cinnamon candy that is absolutely not suited to sculpting. It’s the consistency of something between helva and divinity. I phoned a friend.
Turns out, that beane or teaspoon of gum trag you’re supposed to use? That’s once it’s reconstituted. So I added 36x the amount of gum I needed without the corresponding increase in egg and acid to make the paste stretchy and supple and dry solid. Ugh. Three hours of arm torture for nothing.
Start. Again. Today.