Sugar does more than lend its signature sweetness to candies and confections. To show off sugar’s remarkable qualities, we’ve come up with eight great wintry desserts inspired by artist Will Cotton's fantastical portrait of Martha.
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Nearly everything in the pictures on the following slides is edible -- all of the backgrounds are made of sugary substances, such as sugar itself, rock candy, and cotton candy. The luminous surfaces, plates, and utensils you see on other slides are pulled from sugar by Lauri Ditunno of Cake Alchemy.
Will Cotton, "Alpine Cookie Forest, Martha," 2015, oil on paper, 24 by 20 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery.
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Two types of treats come together in familiar candy-cane-style stripes. The nougat is similar to Italian meringue, which is made by beating hot sugar syrup into whipped egg whites. The soft caramel gets its characteristic golden hue and rich taste from cream and sugar. Our recipe calls for layering the nougat on top of the caramel on a baking sheet, then slicing and twisting the two together.
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Tender, lemony butter cake lies beneath a crisp, crackling shell for a delicious contrast in every bite. The topping is nothing more than granulated and sanding sugars and thin ribbons of lemon zest sprinkled over the batter. As the cake bakes and rises, the sugar turns into a hard shell and the zest browns beautifully.
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Here’s a seasonal take on a beloved sandwich cookie. When you heat sugar, it changes on a molecular level, becoming darker and more complex in flavor. This chemical process, of course, is caramelization. For the filling in these cinnamon-and-allspice whoopie pies, make a caramel sauce and fold it into buttercream. A hit of salt is mixed with the sugar that surrounds the edges, to slightly offset the sweetness.
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You can’t make meringues without sugar. It’s what stabilizes the whipped egg whites, giving structure to the fragile foam and allowing it to hold its shape. We made two batches of meringue, one with brown sugar and one with white sugar (we tinted some of the latter pink, too); they were put side by side into a pastry bag and piped with a star tip into graduated peaks to simulate trees.
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The powdery softness of confectioners’ sugar gives this cake an especially velvety crumb. It gets a triple dose of flavor from coconut milk and coconut oil in the batter and shredded coconut in the vanilla buttercream icing. More buttercream covers the cake and is piped with a star tip into a fanciful forest. These trees mimic the ones Will Cotton piped for his portrait of Martha.
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As if buttery brioche weren’t delectable enough, the sweet bread known as craquelin, which starts with a similar recipe, has crumbled sugar cubes baked into the dough, so you get a tasty crunch when you take a bite. A simple glaze of milk and confectioners’ sugar calls to mind the snow-covered mountains that were part of Will Cotton’s inspiration.
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Some of the season’s best flavors and textures come together in one delicious pastry: A tender, flaky shell holds a creamy custard that’s spiked with brandy to evoke eggnog. Sprinkle a little superfine sugar on top, then use a torch to melt and brown it to create a glasslike coating that will shatter with the first forkful.
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Sugar cookies -- made from an easy dough that holds its shape well -- are a hallmark of the holidays. We started there, then added ground and candied ginger, along with molasses to half the dough and honey to the other half. Those additional sweeteners add flavor and also tint the dough -- handy for making candy canes and sweet pretzels.