SUGAR PASTE: A Cook's "Play Dough"
By Elise Fleming
Sugar paste, molded and colored, formed an important part of a late period, medieval banquet. Most period cookbooks refer to it as "sugar plate" but to avoid confusion with a plate made of sugar and the paste itself, I will refer to it as "sugar paste." The earliest reference I have seen is in Curye on Inglysch (a 15th century cookbook), but the most common references are from the late 16th and the 17th centuries. As evidence of its versatility and "fun" factor, sugar paste exists today as "gum paste."
The paste, both modern versions and period, is simple to make. It is a combination of sugar, liquid, and a strengthening gum. In the Renaissance, the gum was "tragacanth", commonly called "gum dragon." Today, a substitute such as gum karaya is used. Gum arabic, more easily found today than gum tragacanth, is not a substitute. Modern gum paste adds glucose, which increases the pliability and slows the drying effect of air, a welcome addition to those who do not work quickly and surely. Other than this, the paste made from a period recipe seems to be virtually identical to the dough made from modern gum paste mixes.
To modern tongues, sugar paste is sweet but bland. It tastes somewhat like the small, colored, candy valentine hearts that carry a motto, but without the addition of a flavor. Rosewater, used to moisten the gum tragacanth, adds a mild flavor, but Gervase Markham (1615) follows this with the addition of "the juice of an orange." (1) Adding a period coloring agent such as certain vegetables, spices, or various flowers will add an additional flavoring, which may taste somewhat strange to our palates.
As mentioned, Renaissance cooks used a variety of vegetables, flowers, and spices to color the white paste. Shades of red could be obtained with saunders, roses, alkanet, orchil, turnsole, or commercial colorings such as "rosa paris" or "red rosset." Cinnamon would make a walnut color, and ginger and cinnamon a lighter shade. Green might come from spinach, mint, parsley, or "ynde wawdeas." Mentioned in Curye on Inglysch, the supposition is that this refers to "india wode." The latter, when mixed with saffron and egg white, produced green. The more saffron that was used, the lighter the green. Commercial colorings such as "sap green" were also available in Elizabethan times. Yellow was most commonly obtained by saffron, but also by the addition of gold leaf, attached by egg white. Blue often came from a flower such as violets, bugloss, or turnsole, but it could also be obtained from ground stone such as "azure." John Murrell provides a interesting note about the presumed safety of the colorings: "If blew, then Azure being first steept in vinegar, for else it is verie dangerous, the vinegar killeth the strength of the blew..." (2)
Flowers that were frequently used included roses, violets, marigolds, cowslips, primroses, bugloss, and gillyflowers, sometimes listed as "stock gilliflowers" and "clove-gilliflowers." Sir Hugh Plat (1609) and John Murrell (1617) instruct the cook to dry the flowers and beat them into a powder. If using marigolds, both suggest the addition of saffron. Generally, the proportions listed were an equal weight of pounded flowers to sugar. The flowers and the sugar were often beaten together to provide a thorough mixing. Then the liquified gum tragacanth would be added.
Items made of sugar paste were usually destined for the "banquet" which referred to the dessert following the main courses of the meal. It also could refer to an collection of sweetmeats served either formally or informally. What could the cook shape with this edible dough? Just about anything, including dishes, trenchers, plates, cups, table furnishings, snakes, snails, frogs, roses, cherries, strawberries, shoes, slippers, keys, knives, gloves, letters, capital letters, knots, jumballs, walnuts (both shell and kernel), cinnamon sticks, clasps and eyes, buttons, wax lights, marbles, bones, drinking cups shaped like skulls, flowers, rabbits, pigeons, or other little birds or beasts. If the cook wanted something simpler, he could roll out the paste and cut it into shapes for a simple candy. Sometimes the rolled paste was cut into thin strips and twisted around a handle to form a spiral. Other times several layers of different colors were rolled thinly, laid one on top of the other, sliced crossways and rolled again before being cut into shapes. The colors then produced a marbleized effect.
If not destined for the banquet, then the sugar paste might contain a medicine. Both Murrell and Plat include recipes good against coughs or colds. Plat includes a version that is rolled and gilded to "convey any purgative, vomit, or other medicine..." (3)
The Renaissance cook used a variety of methods for shaping the sugar paste including hands and pincers. The cook could roll the sugar paste out, use a reed or the handle of a wooden spoon to wrap the paste around or, according to Murrell cut the paste with a tin instrument. He adds that if the cook isn't skilled, he could use a tin mold. Several kinds of molds are listed in period cookbooks. Murrell mentions molds that are carved inwards and which require soaking in cold water for two to three hours. He cites double molds for shaping cherries and strawberries, with twigs inserted for stalks. Stone, alabaster, and wood molds were used as well as tin ones. These were often dusted with powdered sugar. Besides specific molds, the cook could lay the paste over a plate, bowl, or saucer, pressing it down gently to take its shape. Then the edges were to be pared away with knife and the item let dry until it could be pried out with a knife. (A modern cook might be advised to use waxed paper to avoid the paste sticking to the plate or bowl.)
Thomas Dawson's recipe is one of the most complete. It is from The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597, and is titled "To make a past of Suger, whereof a man may make al manner of fruits, and other fine things with their forme, as Plates, Dishes, Cuppes and such like thinges, wherewith you may furnish a Table."
"Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuyce of Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a little of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it be come like water, then put to it the iuyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to powder, and cast it into the morter by a litle and a litle, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil. When you have brought your paste to this fourme spread it abroad upon great or smal leaves as you shall thinke it good and so shal you form or make what things you wil, as is aforesaid, with such fine knackes as may serve a Table taking heede there stand no hotte thing nigh it. At the ende of the Banket they may eat all, and breake the Platters Dishes, Glasses Cuppes, and all other things, for this paste is very delicate and saverous. If you will make a Tarte of Almondes stamped with suger and Rosewater of this sorte that Marchpaines be made of, this shal you laye between two pastes of such vessels or fruits or some other things as you thinke good."
2-3 teaspoons lemon juice
1-3 tablespoons rosewater*
1/2 lightly beaten egg white
1/2 or 1 teaspoon gum tragacanth
up to a pound or so of powdered sugar (3 1/2 to 4 cups equals approximately one pound)
*The amount of liquid needed varies depending on the type of sugar used, the humidity of the day, how much tragacanth you used, etc. Be flexible. You can use water instead of large amounts of rosewater. The resulting tragacanth mixture should be slightly runny, not stiff or with lumps. Place the tragacanth at one side of the bowl with the liquid next to it. Slowly mix the powder into the liquid to avoid lumps. Add more liquid as needed.
Soak the gum tragacanth in the rosewater until it softens. (Warming the rosewater may facilitate the softening.) Mix it with the lemon juice and egg white. Add the powdered sugar bit by bit, mixing well. If it becomes too stiff and there is a great deal of sugar left, add the remaining part of the egg white. Knead the dough on a powdered-sugar-sprinkled board until it is smooth and stretchy. Then use it to shape what you will. Keep the unused portions and any scraps well covered under a glass jar, in a plastic bag, or under a slightly damp cloth. (If the cloth is too damp the paste will begin to dissolve. You can add more powdered sugar and re-knead.)
You may wish to try the modern version of sugar paste that is sold in cake decorating supply stores as “gum paste.” You can purchase a pre-mixed version where all you do is add water, or you can purchase the ingredients separately such as the strengthening gum (one modern brand is Gum-tex), glucose, and sugar. The gum package should have directions for making the paste. Modern gum paste usually includes glucose, which adds to the workability time of modern pastes. For most uses modern paste is cheaper and quicker to use. Gum tragacanth is hard to find and expensive (roughly $30/pound, if you purchase that much). If the item is to be eaten, period paste tastes a bit nicer.
If you add period coloring agents you may need to adjust the amount of liquid in the recipe and perhaps increase the amount of gum tragacanth which gives strength to the paste. Add the coloring with the liquids, not after you have added all the powdered sugar. If your coloring (such as saffron-colored water) is virtually all liquid, use it as the soaking liquid for the gum tragacanth instead of the rosewater. For non-period colors, you can use slightly thinned-out cake decorating paste colors. If you want the entire amount colored the same, then add the coloring to the liquids. If you only want part of the dough colored, break off the desired amount and knead in the color after you have added the sugar. (This takes a bit longer and needs more patience to obtain a uniform color.) You can also add flavored oils, available from cake decorating supply stores, to change the taste.
Use the sugar paste as you might use modeling clay. Attach sections with beaten egg white. Insert a stick, toothpick, or dowel to hold an item upright and add structural strength. Except for candies, let items dry 24 hours or more, depending on the thickness of the paste. Drying times of several days to a week are common. You can lay the sugar paste on pieces of styrofoam which allows air to circulate on both sides. Or, you can place them on waxed paper and turn them carefully once a day to ensure even drying. Candies are thin enough that the time between making and serving them will suffice for drying. If you are uncertain about trying a period recipe, or cannot find gum tragacanth, purchase the items needed for modern gum paste and practice with it until you become more confident. Most cake decorating supply stores (and libraries) carry books that include working with gum paste. You can find similar techniques listed under "pastillage." The books give more detailed advice on working with sugar paste than space here allows.
Keep sugar paste pieces away from heat or moisture. While placing pieces near a heat source may hasten drying, the oven itself will not work. You need to plan ahead when working with sugar paste. Use waxed paper, a light coating of vegetable oil, a spray version of cooking oil, or a dusting of powdered sugar or cornstarch to help the sugar paste come out of a mold. You may want to roll out and dry a separate piece of sugar paste to use when practicing painting.
Drawings may be done freehand or by transferring a pattern. Methods of transfer can range from carbon paper, using soft pencil, or an opaque projector. Carbon paper is rarely advisable since any stray pressure can transfer bits of the “carbon” which you will then need to scrape off carefully. The “pencil method” involves outlining the design with a soft pencil, turning the paper over and re-copying the outline, then laying the paper down and again tracing over the lines to press the soft pencil lines onto the sugar paste. This is time-consuming but “low tech” and available to anyone. An opaque projector, often used to project designs onto cakes, will allow you to place the piece under the light and directly copy the outline onto the sugar paste. If you do not like the effect of a black line around your figures or design, try a light pencil so that you can “butt” one color up to the other without the black line separating them. The disadvantage, however, is that your first color needs to be somewhat dry before you can attempt the second color, or one may bleed into the other. The black line tends to keep the colors separated even if it is not particularly thick.
Use non-toxic markers to outline any picture or words you want on the dried piece. If the marker “bleeds” you will then know to be extra careful when applying the color there so that it doesn’t bleed out of the lines. Use a sharp knife to carefully scrape away any color that is where it shouldn’t be. If you work with cake decorating paste colors you can mix them on a plastic lid. Yogurt tops work well. Some people prefer to mix the paste colors with vodka instead of water. Sprinkle a few drops of liquid onto the lid. Use a clean toothpick to get some paste color and mix it and the liquid together. Try your color on your practice piece. The “runnier” the color is the more likely it will run out of the area you are painting. The thicker the color, the easier it will be to lay down but it also will be darker. Experiment to find the consistency you need. If you have laid on too much liquid wipe the brush dry and let the dry brush soak up the extra water. You can then apply a thicker mixture if desired. For any color that is “out of the lines”, let it dry a little and then use a sharp knife to cut out the mistake or to make the edge sharper.
If you wish to use limners’ colors as was done “in period” here are some hints from Laura Yungblut. Make the paint thicker than the consistency needed for painting a scroll. This minimizes the “soaking” effect where the paste seems to absorb the paint and one uses more and more paint. You might try laying a white ground first and putting the color on top. If you do not paint quickly enough, or if you paint a large area, you can experience a certain amount of “gumming up” as the sugar’s surface begins to moisten and mix with the paint. Laura prefers to thin her paints with a clear spirit such as gin or vodka to make the moisture evaporation more rapid. This was not a period practice but can be more expedient. She warns against using rum that contains sugar, defeating the rapid evaporation effect.
If yours is a display piece and not meant to be eaten then you may wish to spray it with several coats of acrylic lacquer (available at hobby supply stores) to protect against moisture and people’s fingers. If the piece is edible you will need to be careful when handling it since your fingers may accidentally transfer bits of color to other parts of the item. The same goes for wrapping the piece in plastic wrap. Use a clean piece each time you wrap it up.
“Glue” dried pieces together with egg white or royal icing (egg white, powdered sugar, liquid). When initially working with the fresh paste smooth over wrinkles with and lines with a small amount of moisture and your finger or other tool. Once the paste has dried you can remove wrinkles and lines to some extent with a piece of sandpaper or a sharp knife.
Within reason, the thinner the sugar paste is the prettier and better it looks. If the item is a bowl, for example, and is very thin, it may lose its shape if it is exposed to moisture in the air. Pennsic nights have damaged pieces that have been dried for years! Placing pieces in closed plastic bags or plastic boxes will provide protection. If you have made a goblet, once it is thoroughly dried you can use it to serve a beverage. How long it will stay intact depends upon the thickness of the walls and how well dried the piece is. There are instructions available in most large cake decorating how-to books about constructing people, buildings, etc. Look for instructions for gum paste, pastillage, and even rolled fondant. You can place the sugar paste over armatures to make large standing pieces. Your imagination is your only limit!
1. Markham, Gervase, The English Huswife, 1615, ed. Michael R. Best, McGills-Queens University Press, 1986, p. 115, #170
2. Murrell, John, A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1617, Falconwood Press, 1990, p. 27, #76
3. Plat, Sir Hugh, Delightes for Ladies, 1609, #39, p.22, printed in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Fourth Edition, Volume 1, 1987, Duke Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, p. 96
Brears, Peter, Food and Cooking in 16th Century Britain, English Heritage, 1985
Curye on Inglysch, (15th century), ed. Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press, 1985
Dawson, Thomas, The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597, Falconwood Press, 1988
Lorwin, Madge, Dining With William Shakespeare, Atheneum, 1976
Murrell, John, A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1617, Falconwood Press, 1990
May, Robert, The Accomplisht Cook, 1678 (fourth edition), Falconwood Press, 1992
Markham, Gervase, The English Huswife, 1615, ed. Michael R. Best, McGills-Queens University Press, 1986
Plat, Sir Hugh, Delightes for Ladies, 1609, printed in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Fourth Edition, Volume I, 1987, Duke Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena
Willan, Anne, Great Cooks and Their Recipes, McGraw-Hill, 1977
W.M., A Queen's Delight, 1671, Prospect Books, 1984