I live in a city of sugar.
Once the watery doorway between the unrefined colonies and a refined Europe. A port welcoming shiploads of exotic raw products from the islands, vanilla, rum, spices and sugar, bringing the flavor of far-off lands to our city, intriguing the people of Nantes, allowing them the luxury of dreaming of something tropical and extraordinary without embarking on a perilous voyage. Rum, spices, vanilla quickly became part of their culinary repertoire, enriching the gastronomic pleasures of a city.
And sugar. Nantes became a city of sugar. The imposing silhouette of sugar refineries staining a shadow over the city, showering her with a dusting of sugar.
Sweet, sweet success.
I am surrounded by sugar.
We were a family with a serious sweet tooth. Mom kept the freezer packed with gallon containers of ice cream in a rainbow of flavors: chocolate, coffee, vanilla and neapolitan. Plastic tubs of Cool Whip nestled alongside bags of candy bars and Sara Lee pound cakes and lemon pies, stacks of ready-made pie crusts awaiting a filling, one of the many cans pushed into the cupboard next to boxes of sugary cereals in yellow, pink and blue and poptarts in chocolate fudge, blueberry and cherry. Dad kept the countertop laden with sweets, bags of Mary Janes and Jolly Ranchers, sour balls, Tootsie Rolls and Strawberry Whips and the refrigerator filled with bowls of jewel-like prune and apricot compote, sweet and tart. Rare was a weekend when I didn’t find him pouring cake batter into a pan or pudding into cups or spooning choux dough onto baking sheets. Pull open the Lazy Susan to find jars of cinnamon-sugar ready for dusting on warm buttered toast, boxes of chocolaty powder for milk, jars of grape jelly and packets of Kool-Aid.
Sugary treats were part and parcel of my girlhood, free for the taking, tiny hands of tiny children grabbing snacks and desserts whenever their little hearts desired. We simply followed in our parents’ footsteps, parents who could be found any evening sitting in front of the television with a bowl or a plate on their lap, a bowl or a plate piled high with something sweet, any afternoon grabbing handfuls of candy.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. The quantities of broccoli, spinach, peas and carrots we four children could consume would make any mother’s heart thrill with pride. We were sensible kids and happy eaters, always part of the Clean Plate Club. Sweet didn’t trump savory. Oh no. We waited for mealtime with joy, ate with gusto and asked for more. Preparing a snack for ourselves could just as well mean a bowl of shrimp topped with spicy cocktail sauce or bagels rich with red sauce and cheese. We each of us delighted in bringing home recipes for Tuna Casserole or Chicken Pie from Scouts or Home Ec and whipping them up for family.
But sugar. Sweets. Are just in our blood.
Strawberries and sugar, sweet on sweet. A sprinkling of white on a bowl of cereal turning the milk to sweet, gulping down the very last drop. A spoonful of brown to sweeten steaming oatmeal, a puddle of salty yellow butter like watery sunshine spreading across the pale gray. A pinch or two thrown buoyantly, enthusiastically into a pot of red sauce, swallowed up in the bubbling brew, mellowing the acidic bite. A few good dashes of sugar to a sizzling skillet of onions melting into luxuriously smooth caramel. Savory and sweet.
Sugar is sweet and so are you.
JAMIE’S OLD-FASHIONED SUGAR COOKIES
1 cup (225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 ½ cups (300 g) sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
2 ¾ cups (415 g) flour
Sugar for rolling the cookies in
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds until blended and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, the cream of tartar, baking soda, vanilla and salt.
Beat in as much of the flour as you can with the mixer then fold in the remaining flour with a wooden spoon. Form the dough into a ball, kneading lightly only as much as needed to create a smooth, homogenous dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Put a few tablespoons of granulated sugar in a small bowl.
Remove the cookie dough from the refrigerator and shape lightly into 1-inch (2 ½ cm) balls. Roll each ball in the sugar to coat and place the balls on ungreased cookie sheets spacing them 2 inches (5 cm) apart.
Bake for 9 to 12 minutes until spread, puffed, golden and just starting to brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and gently transfer the cookies to wire cooling racks.