Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Homemade sugar cubes — a sweet gift

My kids lead a sheltered life. My 10-year-old encountered sugar cubes for the first time just last month, at a cafĂ© in Paris. His chocolat chaud was served with a small bowl of perfect little sugar cubes — he thought they were the best part of the drink. I let him believe it was an only-in-Europe kind of thing ... until I was inspired to make sugar cubes with the boys for Mother's Day and Teacher Appreciation Week.

Sugar cubes are such fun to make with kids! Minimal effort, big payoff — and you can make them at the last minute or ages ahead of time. The hardest part is keeping the kids from licking their fingers over and over and over.

Here's how you do it: Add a tiny bit of liquid — flavored extract, juice, water, coffee, even liqueur — into sugar. Then firmly press the mixture into small molds, or shape into a flat brick and cut into cubes or with shaped cutters. Let the cubes dry a few hours until they're rock solid.

Packaged in a little jar, they make a beautiful gift all on their own. They're even better presented with a mug and tea (or sparkling wine!).

The flavor possibilities are limitless. The boys decided to make heart-shaped vanilla cubes using a scraped vanilla bean and vanilla extract. I threw together a few more varieties: rose-scented hearts and stars, bright pink cubes made with grenadine, and hearts using lemon verbena-infused simple syrup I had made for lemonade and iced tea.

I added a dab of food coloring to the lemon verbena cubes. They came out VERY BRIGHT.

A few tips:
  • Don't add too much liquid. The mixture should be grainy. Think wet sand for castle building, or a good snowball. If you use food coloring, add just a teeny tiny dab so you don't end up with, say, Day-Glo yellow.

  • Keep them small. If you have tiny candy molds or cute little cookie cutters, use them. Big, thick pieces take longer to dry — and are a lot of sugar per bite. Mine are a little bigger than ideal, but the kids aren't complaining.

  • Pack firmly. Too loose, and they'll be crumbly.

  • Leave them alone to dry. Just let them sit on the counter, in the mold if you're using one, and resist the urge to poke them. After a few hours, check them carefully. When they're hard enough to handle, gently remove them from the mold and turn all of them upside-down. Ours were done within 3 to 5 hours, except for the grenadine batch. I put those in the oven at 200 degrees for half an hour to finish drying them. 
The colorful grenadine ones ended up being the kids' favorites — they ate them straight, and popped them in ginger ale for an instant Shirley Temple. But they took a full 24 hours to dry thoroughly. We kept poking them impatiently and mashed quite a few.

The small cutters were my favorite tool for crisply edged shapes, but the molds were easiest for the kids. I love our rough-cut cubes, but if you want something dainty and perfect, this silicone mini cube tray would be perfect. I'm loving the idea of using this tiny leaf mold for minty sugar cubes to serve with tea.

Homemade sugar cubes

To fancy things up, try rose water, orange blossom water, or extracts such as almond, mint, or lemon. Or you can make simple syrup infused with whole spices or herbs (follow this technique for lavender syrup). You can even add vanilla bean, edible flowers, or a bit of spice.

1 cup sugar
2 to 4 teaspoons water, infused syrup, extract, or a combination
optional: food coloring
molding equipment suggestions: candy molds, cookie cutters, spatula, dough scraper

Add 2 teaspoons of liquid to the sugar (and a tiny bit of food coloring, if using) and stir with a fork until well blended. Stir in more liquid, just a few drops at a time, until the texture is like wet sand. It should be almost slushy, but not so wet that the sugar dissolves.

For molded cubes, press sugar firmly into molds and smooth away loose sugar.

To make cubes or use cookie cutter shapes, pour sugar into a straight-sided square or rectangular container and press down to pack it in firmly. It doesn't need to cover the whole bottom — use a dough scraper, spatula, or even an old credit card to press it down and square off the edge (see photo at right).

For cubes, use a sharp knife to cut cubes. Leave them in place for an hour or so, until they're pretty firm, then gently separate them a little bit.

To use cookie cutters, press cookie cutter into sugar, then carefully lift up the cutter and drop the shaped sugar on a piece of parchment paper. If it doesn't slide out easily, use your finger to gently push it down.

Leave the sugar cubes in the mold or on the paper to dry completely. Once they're hard enough to handle, gently remove cubes from the molds and turn them over to finish drying completely. You can put them in a 180 degree oven for 30 to 60 minutes to speed things up.

Store cubes in an airtight container.


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