If I had to choose one word that differentiates the work of pastry chefs from that of culinary chefs, it would be "spectacle," or perhaps "illusion". Need a cake shaped like a Louis Vuitton purse? Or a replica of the Statue of Liberty sculpted entirely in chocolate? Pastry chefs, unlike their culinary counterparts, are called upon to take food to these aesthetic heights, by manipulating simple, raw ingredients into visual, edible art.
In pastry school, we learned dozens of techniques for making sugar look like all kinds of things: ribbon, balloons, delicate flowers, and even sponges. I love having these skills in my wheelhouse because it's great to be able to jazz up a simple dessert with a little sugar work for special occasions. Of all the sugar techniques I've learned, making spun sugar is my favorite way to add some drama to desserts.
Spun sugar is, simply, a sugar solution that has been heated to a specific temperature, and pulled into tiny threads as they harden. Usually the threads are gathered together to form a nebulous shape while they are still warm and somewhat flexible. The sugar solution, which contains granulated sugar, corn syrup, and water, is heated to 293 degrees Fahrenheit, just shy of hard-crack stage, which yields sugar threads that are slightly flexible as they cool. To make threads, a fork is dipped into the mixture and then waved over dowels or a template, which catches the threads of sugar as they begin harden before your eyes.
It's a bit complicated, but with proper set-up and some patience, spun sugar can be made at home. Click through this slideshow with step-by-step tips for making spun sugar, then try it out on your own. It's the perfect topper for any cake, custard, or frozen dessert, and can transform something that looks average into a very special dessert (it's important to note that spun sugar does not store well, particularly in humid conditions, and should be consumed soon after making). I love topping cupcakes with spun sugar for birthday celebrations, like these chocolate cupcakes, by Dorie Greenspan.