It's that time of year again when the ex-sorority girls dust off their too-tight naughty nurse costumes and a palpable buzz abounds from all the bite-sized Butterfingers everyone is sugar-high on. I don't know what it is about an extra chill in the air that makes people want to strip down with their bad selves and a can of body glitter, but it has an opposite effect on me.
I yearn for the kitchen. I get my witch on by stirring giant cauldrons of Bolognese and I confess to igniting the oven more than I need to just so I can sidle up next to it and toast my buns.
One thing I can't resist, though, is the damn candy. No matter how focused my tunnel vision, I still seem to knock into a sweet (or ten) throughout the day. So I've decided to take matters into my own Frankensteinian hands and create a monster that is less evil on my hips than a clutch full of pilfered Mars Bars.
In order to create my candies, I turned to an oft-used ingredient in modernist cookery called isomalt. Isomalt is a sugar substitute derived from beets that has about half the calories of regular table sugar. It is a usual suspect in the recipes of Ferran Adria and his cronies because it does not caramelize like table sugar, nor does it absorb external moisture. It is frequently found in garnishes and amuse bouches that appear to have whisper-thin membranes of glass.
Excessive consumption of isomalt can lead to flatulence or stomach upset, but a sugar-crazed Little Chrissy would have to eat more than a quarter cup to experience these symptoms. I view this as built-in self-regulation, because I shouldn't be eating that much candy anyway.
When isomalt is hot, it's stretchy and flexible. When it cools, which it does rather quickly, it is stiff as a straitjacket. The goal for working with isomalt, then, is to catch it while it's pliable and work extremely quickly.
In the book A Day at El Bulli, there is a recipe for an isomalt sweet filled with pumpkinseed oil. I made a few modifications to it, such as adding a small ratio of cinnamon oil to the pumpkinseed oil to punch up the pumpkin flavor.
In theory, the technique is simple. In practice I cut my fingers more than a few times on sugar shards, but once I got into the groove, the candies came together fairly quickly.
These require a small round cutter, a good digital thermometer, a rubber spatula, a pair of kitchen scissors, a shallow saucepan or skillet, measuring spoons and a silicone baking mat to properly execute the candies. In terms of ingredients, isomalt and pumpkinseed oil are the biggies, with finishing salt, gold leaf and cinnamon oil rounding out the bunch.
Isomalt is available at good baking supply shops or can be ordered via Amazon. I found pumpkinseed oil at a local well-stocked grocery and I've seen it at specialty markets and natural food stores. Natural food stores usually stock cinnamon oil, as does Amazon. Gold leaf, which is entirely decorative and therefore not essential, is at baking supply shops or via the interwebs.
First, you heat the isomalt crystals to 260°F in the saucepan. The trick here is to uniformly melt all of the isomalt so that the resulting syrup doesn't have clumps or bubbles. Then you dip the cutting edge of the round cutter into the syrup and pour a teaspoon of pumpkinseed oil through the cutter and onto the membrane of syrup that formed across the bottom edge. The weight of the pumpkinseed oil pushes down the membrane and a little candy bulges out the bottom of the cutter.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well here are some tricks to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made.
Use a cutter that has a diameter of about ¾". I have a set, and I used my smallest cutter. When I tried to use a larger one, my membranes punctured more often (like with condoms and pornstars).
Work carefully but very quickly. Isomalt hardens fast, and if you don't pour the oil in while it's still pliable, it will not bulge down into a candy properly. The original recipe mentioned that the isomalt should be 250°F. I found that temperature wasn't hot enough to get the isomalt sufficiently soft enough to bulge from the weight of the syrup, so I tried 260°F which worked great. After I got into a groove, it became more about knowing the right feel of the syrup than constantly checking the temperature.
Here is a photo of the isomalt membrane on the bottom of the cutter. I poured in the pumpkinseed oil, but not quickly enough, and the candy didn't drop all the way down as it should have.
Once the candy drops down and forms, snip the shards that are still attached to the cutter very quickly. As they harden, they fragment and you risk piercing your candy bubble. Work very low over a silicone baking mat. Harder surfaces may puncture the delicate candies as they solidify. Working too high up could result in splatted candies, plus, as the candy bulges out the bottom of the cutter, I like to nestle it onto the baking mat which forms a little depression on the bottom of the candy, making it easier to set on a plate. Between every use, the cutter has to be washed of excess syrup; otherwise the new syrup will cling to the old.
These brilliant gems are the perfect antidote to a sickly-saccharine Halloween because the pumpkinseed oil helps them toe the line of savory/sweet. If you're grown up and fancy, you might try serving them as a mignardise during a swank Halloween soiree.
About the author: Linda lives in Seattle, WA where she practices modernist food ninja sorcery and writes about it on her personal blog www.saltyseattle.com. She is a freelance contributor to many local and national publications. If you want her in 140 character snippets, follow her on twitter @saltyseattle.