Candy floss

I’m going to assume that at some point during your life, you’ve had the opportunity to try candy floss, cotton candy, fairy floss, or whatever you happen to call it in your local dialect. “Sugar spider”? Sugar spun into strands so thin, that it turns soft and fluffy, and it dissolves into nothing the moment you put it on your tongue.

I’m also going to assume that you didn’t make that candy floss at home. Because although your mum or dad wanted you to have a good time, they never bought you a candy floss machine, because they’re too expensive, life’s not fair, and besides, sugar is bad for you, so you had to eat it at the fair.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Candy floss is now sold in buckets made of more plastic, by weight, than the candy they contain. Boo.

On the other hand, candy floss making machines are now reasonably affordable consumer items, but if you’re like me, you figured that you’re probably going to use it once or twice, and it will only be gathering dust from then on – making the candy floss so expensive per serving that you’re better off buying it ready-made. So you end up not buying a candy floss maker, and if you have kids, you tell them life’s not fair, and besides, sugar is bad for you, so you should eat candy floss at the fair.

Or should you?

A kilo of sugar, costing 60p here in the UK, makes just over 30 servings. The owner of the candy floss stand at the fair isn’t afraid of a tidy mark-up!

Also, a serving of candy floss contains about 30 grams of sugar, about as much as a serving of the leading soft drink – hovering at the maximum recommended daily dose of around 25 grams for an adult**. Thanks for raining on my parade, WHO.

I might as well stop writing this blog post right now. Just when I’ve come this far writing it, and you’ve come this far reading it. But we don’t have to actually eat any of the candy floss we make. We can just look at it. Maybe only smell it. Maybe just have a small nibble, no more. Sure we can.

Various approaches to making thinly-spun sugar

At its most basic, candy floss is nothing more than sugar that’s heated until the sugar crystals soften and flow together; and is then subsequently stretched into thin strands while it cools to the point where the sugar goes solid again.

There are various ways to achieve this.

An old Chinese recipe is Dragon’s Beard candy; soft sugar is shaped into a ring which is repeatedly stretched, folded and dusted with starch to prevent the strands from fusing back together. The method is somewhat similar to making hand-pulled noodles.

Then there’s a method which involves covering your entire kitchen in newspapers and using a fork to flick hot sugar over a pair of wooden spoon handles. This method produces strands quite quickly. It doesn’t require any starch, but it is quite sensitive to getting the temperature just right, makes for relatively course spun sugar, and quite a bit of the sugar serves no other purpose than to make your newspapers and your kitchen sticky in no time flat. There’s something interesting about this method though, as the sugar is not stretched by hand, but by acceleration and inertia.

The modern candy floss maker was invented in the late 19th century by Nashville candy maker John C. Wharton and dentist William J. Morrison, the latter of whom clearly had no conflict of interests. The following diagram shows roughly how it works:

candyfloss_diagram

Sugar is placed in a perforated, spinning drum. The sugar is course enough and the holes in the drum are fine enough that the sugar stays in the drum while it is solid. The drum is heated, causing the sugar to melt, which allows it to be flung out of the drum through the holes, forming strands of molten sugar. Having left the drum, the sugar is no longer heated and quickly sets back into solid form. Since there are lots of holes in the drum, many strands will form. The collection bowl prevents the sugar from flying all over the place and getting everything sticky.

What makes this tricky is that the sugar has to be course enough and the holes have to be fine enough – and while we’re at it, the candy floss seller at the fair offers various colours and flavours. Though we can certainly build our own candy floss maker, it will just as well end up collecting dust, not to mention that we will very soon get to the point where buying one is cheaper.

So we’ll simplify. We’ll make do with what we have. For the spinning drum, we’ll start by getting a tin of about the right size. From there on, we’ll get to the business of making candy floss, MacGyver style.
candyfloss_maciver Yes, I know you can read. Don’t be pedantic. It’s close enough.

At this point, we’re mostly interested in the tin, but we’d miss an opportunity if we didn’t also use the contents later on. Such pretty pictures of healthy fruit and veg printed on the tin. And the compound word “Multi-vitamin”. The WHO will be pleased.

So let’s reserve that candy. Find another container for it, preferably air-tight – we don’t want humid air to get to it because the candy will get all sticky, since sugar attracts moisture. Anything ranging from a humble plastic bag with a knot in it to a posh glass jar with the word “sweets” embossed on it will do.

We’ll need to make a small hole in the base of the tin, as precisely in the centre as we can. To get to the centre, trace the outline of the tin on a piece of paper.

candyfloss_trace
Cut out the circle as precisely as you can and fold the circle exactly in half twice. The centre of the circle is where the folds meet. With the tin turned upside-down, place the circle back on the base of the tin.

candyfloss_centredcircle

Flatten your circle, align it carefully and mark the centre of the base through the paper with a sharp pointed object.

Now break out your rotary tool. Isn’t cooking fun?

Take the necessary health-and-safety precautions – be sensible. As drill slippage is expected, using a high-power electric drill for this project is most certainly not sensible. If you don’t have a rotary tool, you’ll likely be able to buy a cheap one. They’re around ten pounds on eBay. Rotary tools typically come with small cutting discs and sanding discs and one or more drill attachments including the mandrels that allow you to mount those cutting discs onto the tool.

candyfloss_attachmentThe hole of one of your cutting discs probably gives you a good idea about the size of the hole you’ll need to drill; you may be able to drill your hole slightly smaller. Do you see where this is going? We can now attach our tin to the rotary tool and take it for a spin.

candyfloss_testdriveIf your tin is wildly off-balance, you may have to try again. Keep in mind that for various reasons, your tin is unlikely to ever be 100% perfectly balanced. If you’ve closely followed the instructions above, it’s probably fine. To finish off our contraption, all we need to do is to drill lots of little holes…

candyfloss_sanding
… and sand down the inside of the tin to flatten out any bumps created by drilling outside-in. These bumps would prevent our liquid sugar from flowing out, so we’re getting rid of them.

So now we’ve got a candy floss making contraption. If you don’t feel like drilling hundreds of holes, you could also try the alternative, mesh-based version (the mesh is cut from a 1-pound sieve):
candyfloss_contraptionv2
After cutting a start, I could cut most of the gaps with scissors, so this version is probably a bit quicker to make – but it’s also more likely to leave your contraption having sharp edges, strips of metal and sharp mesh wire. You really don’t want to get sharp bits of metal stuck in your insides (or anyone else’s for that matter), so you’ll have to make sure to sand down the edges and you should probably double-check there’s no bits of metal left inside. The point is, be safe.

As you can see, we’re hanging our spinning drum from our rotary tool. Now all we need to do is to heat our sugar. If you’ve tried using a candle, you’ll have noticed that the air displacement from spinning our tool will blow it out. But we don’t need to heat our candy or sugar in our contraption. We just need to warm it. So instead of modifying our contraption to provide the heat, we’ll melt the sugar on the hob (what a concept!) and that allows us to keep our contraption pretty minimalist.

So get your happy little candies on the hob, on low heat. Playing candy crush in advance is entirely optional; I choose not to.

candyfloss_boilingWe could use regular sugar, by the way – but it has a slightly higher melting point than candy, around 160°C (320°F) as opposed to about 150°C (300°F) ***. This is due to the glucose syrup usually present in hard candy. As a result of the higher melting point, plain sugar may take on a slight caramel taste. But we’ve got candy available anyway – we might as well use it. Once it’s just molten turn off the heat and leave to cool for a few seconds – we want to stay as close to the hardening temperature as possible, otherwise our candy floss won’t harden.

Hold your candy floss contraption in one hand, lowered in a bucket or similar. Hold your saucepan of liquid candy in the other hand. If you’re shooting video, hold your camera in your other, other hand.

As for your paper cone… they’re probably not much use with this contraption as it’s so hands-on. But should you choose to do so, you can make paper cones really easily by rolling up a regular sheet of printer paper as tightly as possible, starting at a corner and holding the opposite corner under the tap once you’re two thirds in, then rolling them up further and letting them dry.

I didn’t have my third hand available, so forgive me for posting a bit older video I made:

Compared to the drilled contraption used in the video, it seems the mesh-based version seems to result in slightly courser candy floss, though while experimenting I noticed that a less course candy floss can be obtained by mixing in plain sugar.

candyfloss_v2result
But still – Behold. Home made… Multi-vitamin candy floss, so healthy it will make your teeth chip!

As for clean-up, the easiest way is to just dunk your whole contraption in a container of water until the remaining sugar has dissolved. Don’t try that with a store-bought candy floss maker. And at the size, storage is no issue; you might even store paperclips and rubber bands in it, though drinking straws won’t fit.

The little contraption described above allows you to do all kinds of candy floss experiments. The obvious thing to do is to try all sorts of exciting flavours such as orange, cherry, mint, caramel, coffee or nam pla. The sky is the limit.

You can compress and shape it into a melt-in-the-mouth, felt-like texture – maybe as part of a dessert.  Remember that sugar is hydrophyle, it attracts water – so candy floss doesn’t keep for long.

Far less obvious is to try to make sugar-free candy floss or lower-sugar candy-floss, though I’ve personally not had a lot of success with this; I found pure Xylitol as well as sugar-free mints did seem to pull threads, but they didn’t crystallize back from a thick syrup into hard floss strands, but you may have more luck with other sugar substitutes, different hole sizes, a mix of sugar and non-sugar or indeed a different contraption altogether.  It might be possible to make candy floss that’s actually good for your teeth. It will likely also clean out your system. And perhaps, in the end, we’ll keep the WHO happy too!

A final note: Instead of using a candy tin, I also tried making candy floss using a perforated paper cup. It was easier to do than making a contraption out of tin, but it wobbled a lot and hot sugar splattered all over the kitchen, possibly due to the sloping edges of the cup, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Have you made candy floss? Please share your experiences below!

** Ideally. See page 4.WHO recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake (strong recommendation); WHO suggests a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake (conditional recommendation) which amounts to about 25 grams. So occasionally going over 25 grams isn’t all that much of a drama. Woo hoo!
*** I keep saying that sugar melts. That’s not entirely accurate. Sugar doesn’t melt; it decomposes.

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Quintuple-Cooked Chips: Pretty Good Fries

Get your geek on and start up your kitchen gadgets – We’re going to try to cook one of Heston Blumenthal’s classics, tweaked for the home cook. Which one – Snail porridge? Bacon-and-egg ice cream? No! We’ll be doing our utter best to give Heston’s Triple Cooked Chips a run for their money.

In under an hour, and without specialist gadgets, we’ll be turning this:
marispiper_raw
into these:
5xc_chips

And I’ve got absolutely everything I need to make it happen.

I’ve got a reason.
I’ve got a back story.
I’ve got a recipe.

And I’ve got silly glasses.

I am ready.

The reason: The elusive Great British chip (as in “fried potato strips” – not “wafer-thin fried crispy potato slices”).
Crispy on the outside. Fluffy on the inside. Did I say elusive?

I apologise for interrupting this post for an important message to 9 out of 10 chippies in Britain.

Hello, you can do considerably better.

End of announcement. Sorry, it had to be said.

The back story: I went to a wannabe-gourmet burger joint in the past week. The expression “Cheap as chips” was clearly lost on the owners of this joint, as a single portion of them cost £3.35, as much as five kilos (over ten pounds!) of Maris Piper potatoes. I also ordered a burger, which I shall ignore for the remainder of this post.

Potatoes don’t tend to turn into chips all by themselves, so I figured I’d give this establishment a fairer price comparison with other establishments. That’s where Heston Blumenthal’s original Triple Cooked Chips enter the story. Served at the three-starred Michelin chef’s pub The Crown at Bray for £3 per portion. I’ve had these chips at The Crown in the past, and they were excellent. Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside – the way chips should be.

One would expect that chips priced at an even higher price point than this gold standard ought to be, at the very least, pretty good. So while I was waiting for the food to arrive, I was daydreaming about the most glorious chips ever.

The daydream ended abruptly when the chips arrived. They lacked any crisp, were stodgy and unseasoned. I sent them back for a bit longer fry, but even that didn’t remedy the situation, and I ended up leaving into the miserable gray. Alone, without umbrella, disappointed, my pocket a good deal lighter, feeling sorry for myself and still craving nice chips. Good thing it wasn’t raining.

I decided to make some proper chips myself, so I got myself a bag of Maris Piper potatoes and looked up the original Triple Cooked Chips recipe from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s a fairly simple recipe (to Heston’s standards, anyway). In short, if you’re feeling peckish and want some chips now, here’s what you’ll have to do:

Start cooking yesterday. Peel Maris Piper or Arran Victory potatoes, cut them into 1.5cm square strips. Rinse them for a few minutes to wash off some starch. Boil them in salted water until almost falling apart, use a vacuum chamber at full power to dehydrate them (thrice!), chill them in the fridge, fry in oil at 130°C, vacuum chamber thrice again, freeze them, and finally deep fry again at 180°C. **

Almost nobody has the requisite gadgets in their kitchen to make this happen (a vacuum chamber and a time machine). I thought it might be useful to build a cheap vacuum chamber, so I looked up vacuum pumps on eBay, and got scarred for life because people are freaks. So I’ve come up with an alternative recipe which can achieved by a normal home cook in a normal kitchen. It’s got all the appeal of the real thing, but takes a lot less time. I’ve made some tweaks to make the recipe my own, making me even slightly prefer my version over the original; but it’s possible that I’m biased, or simply delusional.

Understanding the original Triple Cooked Chips recipe

If we take a closer look at the above method, we see some steps that are intended to accomplish a particular goal, and some steps that describe how to optimize the recipe to get the best possible result.

  • The potatoes are chosen for their moisture content (just shy of 22% dry matter) and flavour. The humble home cook has no means to check dry matter content of potatoes in store, but Maris Piper is an obvious choice as it’s an easy to find, flavoursome all-rounder here.
  • Peeling them appears to be the norm.
  • The size of the strips is an  about getting the optimal balance between exterior crisp and interior fluffiness. Too thin and your chips will all crisp and no fluff; too thick and they’ll never crisp up. Chippies, take note.
  • Washing off the starch makes the chips easier to handle and is supposed to make them more crispy. More on this later.
  • Boiling helps the potatoes fluff up and create crevices all over their surface, which will help oil to soak in when frying.
  • All the oil in the world won’t crisp up a wet chip – moisture is the enemy of crisp, so a vacuum chamber is used to drive off moisture. High school physics says that lower pressure causes water to boil off at lower temperatures.
  • We then fry at 130°C. This is traditional for twice-cooked chips; it will drive off more moisture by turning it to steam. This creates cavities in the surface of the chip as steam escapes. As the potato is already softened, the effect is more dramatic than if we had started with raw potato. The temperature is chosen above the boiling temperature of water, but below the temperature at which browning generally takes place.
  • We drive off yet more moisture by another trip to the vacuum chamber.
  • Finally, we brown the chips to the desired degree, sprinkle them with salt and serve them immediately.

For our home recipe, we’ll follow roughly the same procedure, but with a few tweaks.

1. I cut my chips slightly thinner
I like my chips fairly crispy, so I cut them roughly 12mm thick. It’s a bit of a balancing game, and this thickness seems to work well for my recipe. For what it’s worth, the Triple Cooked Chips at The Crown in Bray were also cut slightly thinner than indicated in the Fat Duck cookbook.

2. I don’t rinse the starch off my potatoes when making chips.
I don’t doubt that washing off the starch for several minutes will make the chips easier to handle. In a commercial environment it would be desirable for potato strips not to stick to each other, but in a home kitchen this might not matter all that much. Another reason for rinsing off starch is given; it is supposed to make the chips crispier. This seems counter-intuitive to me. After all, prawn crackers are made of nearly pure starch and are amongst the crispiest things out there. So I tried a little side-by-side experiment, and found that the unrinsed chips were indeed slightly crispier (confirmation bias applies, but feel free to try this out for yourself). I’ve also tried a batch where I lightly dusted the potato strips with pure potato starch; these were without any doubt a lot crispier, but the crust ended up so thick and crunchy that it distracted from the pleasure of eating them.

3. I don’t boil my potatoes. I steam them.
In the original Triple Cooked Chips recipe, a lot of effort is made to drive off moisture. It doesn’t have to be like that. When I was in the process of developing my potato-and-gravy cupcakes for Britain’s Best Dish, I had trouble with the moisture content of boiled potatoes. To make a long story slightly less long, the solution was to steam the potatoes instead. As a bonus, this also means less of the potato’s flavour and nutrition leaks away into the boiling water. Not to worry, though, they’ll still be plenty unhealthy.

4. I don’t have a vacuum chamber – so I use the microwave instead.
You’ve likely got a microwave in your home kitchen, right? The Fat Duck Cookbook mentions the microwave as one of the methods considered to help dehydrate his chips – Heston discarded this method, not because it didn’t work, but because it was deemed “too inconsistent”, according to the book. I could only imagine this inconsistency being the result of the microwave heating up food unevenly. But guess what – it is possible to work around this. One can either cook at a lower power setting (which gives the heat more time to distribute through the food), or by nuking full blast for a while, rearranging the chips on the plate and blasting at full power again. The latter is the method I tend to use, and to good effect.

I’m aware there are other methods to drive off moisture from chips, but they invariably take a lot more time.

5. I don’t refrigerate or freeze my chips. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
After the chips are boiled, they are chilled in the fridge to make them firm enough to handle (and condensation helps drive off yet a bit more moisture). The chips are indeed very delicate when they’ve just been boiled or steamed. But with less moisture to begin with, a few extra cracks in the chips will only make them more crispy. So the chips go from steaming right into the microwave. As far as freezing is concerned, I do find that it improves the crust, but negatively impacts the texture of the interior. It seems to make the chips more starchy. Maybe due to ice crystals poking through the potato cell walls?

6. I don’t fry my chips in peanut oil – though I’m not opposed to it.
Peanut oil and sunflower oil are both great frying oils which are relatively flavour-neutral. Both of them have a high smoke point. If you can afford paying twice as much for your frying oil, I’d recommend frying in peanut oil – it is slightly higher in saturates and this results into crispier chips. I’d probably use peanut oil if I had a cook-off to win. But I otherwise I tend to use sunflower oil for flavour-neutral frying – Seriously, it’s fine.

7. I refuse to drench my chips in vinegar
Yeah yeah, Brits like their chips with salt and vinegar. Salt and sour. But the moment you splash vinegar over your chips, this will introduce moisture we’ve painstakingly tried to remove from the chips, and they’ll go soft in no time. It’s no wonder British chippies hardly ever serve crispy chips – most Brits wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. That salt-and-vinegar flavoured bag of crisps you had a while back shows a solution. As it turns out, a bit of crystalline citric acid (E330) will go a long way – and you’ll find it at most Asian supermarkets. Alternatively, serve your chips with a dip by the side, such as ketchup or mayonnaise. Entire populations do.

By now, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the recipe we’ve arrived at. So without further ado, here it is, in all its glory.

Quintuple-cooked chips

Peel as many Maris Piper potatoes as you’d like to turn into chips. If you’re outside the UK, you might want to go for whichever potato is indicated for chips/fries in your country (start your search engines!).

marispiper_raw

Cut your potatoes into strips 12-15mm thick. Don’t worry about the edge pieces being slightly thinner – They’ll become extra crispy bonus bits for you. We’re going to steam them. If you have a steamer, this is your opportunity to use it for junk food. Otherwise, you might need to improvise a bit; I’ve used a metal sieve from the bargain shop, sitting just above boiling water. Maybe you’d get a Chinese bamboo steaming basket. If you can, spread out your chips into a single layer. I couldn’t, because I was too forgetful to do so.

marispiper_steamready

Put the cover on your steaming device and steam your potato strips until soft, 15-20 minutes (check with a fork).
marispiper_steaming

The chips should now be very fluffy and fragile.
marispiper_steamed

Carefully spread the chips out on a plate in a single layer, and microwave on full power for 90-120 seconds to drive off excess moisture. Rearrange the chips and repeat. They should now have slightly dried out and fluffed up a bit. You’ll probably break a few while handling them. Never mind – they’ll be delicious.
marispiper_postnuke1

Deep fry the chips in oil at 130°C until a pale crust begins to form. Do not overcrowd your cooking vessel – it’s far better to cook several small batches than one big one. This is because the moisture in the chips will keep the temperature of the oil down until the water is boiled off. If using a thermometer to control the temperature, you can keep an eye on the temperature; first it will drop to around 100°C and then slowly climb again. Once the temperature has climbed back to around 130-140°C, enough moisture should have evaporated that a slight crust can be felt while moving the chip around – about 5 minutes if your batch is small enough.

Once a batch has a pale crust, remove from the oil with a slotted spoon or similar and start the next batch. Drain briefly on kitchen paper, cooling rack, heat-proof colander or metal sieve (an excess of oil on the kitchen paper won’t help your chips to crisp up). By now you should be able to see the surface of the chips develop cracks and crevices (as visible in the centre chip below), and this will allow extraordinary crisp after the final fry.
marispiper_post130Cfry

Microwave the chips on full for another minute or two. Then either refrigerate them, or freeze them, if you must – but I’d suggest to finish frying them at 180°C until golden brown and crisp. During this browning stage, get them to that point where no amount of additional frying could possibly make them look any better. Briefly drain on kitchen paper, sprinkle with the best salt you have and optionally a bit of citric acid you want a bit of acidity; using liquid vinegar at this point would be a waste of perfectly good chips.

And there you have it – perfectly crispy/fluffy home made chips, cooked in under an hour from start to finish.

5xc_chips

And what if all this is still too much work? Surprisingly, some frozen chips are pretty decent. And if you’ve come this far, at least you’ll know what to look for.

** Heston Blumenthal has published several versions of his recipe over the years – my short description above is based on the Fat Duck Cookbook version. Alternate versions do not require a vacuum chamber but require extended cooling periods – an hour between every cooking stage. This includes the recipe published in “Total Perfection”, which prescribes frying at 190°C, and that in “Heston Blumenthal at home”, which suggests cutting the chips as much as 2 cm thick and returns to frying at 180°C for the browning stage. Apparently, even perfection isn’t set in stone.