Having ended up with a surplus of sunflower seeds, I rummaged through the Internet looking for interesting recipes. Ultimately, I settled on a recipe billed as First Prize Sunflower Brittle, chosen partly because I had the ingredients on hand, ordinary pantry staples such as sugar, corn syrup, a little butter and vanilla, etc. My candy thermometer had been hiding in the closet way too long. I've always loved kitchen chemistry involving the melting of sugar.
The recipe started simply enough with boiling water, then adding the sugar and syrup. I got the sugar stirred in and reached for the corn syrup. Well, apparently that bottle had been sitting around for many years, perhaps since the previous century. The plastic twist cap would not come off. I tried hot water and gave it all the muscle I had, no luck. My husband was not home for consultation. I got out the vise grips thinking surely they would do the trick. I twisted the cap, feeling quite capable. But again no luck. Meanwhile, I had to take the pot with the water and sugar off the stove.
I did not want to have to drive to the grocery store for more corn syrup. So I got out a hammer and nail and pierced the plastic cap. Some progress here, but when I upended the bottle, it seemed the hole was so small, the syrup would not really flow. So I pounded some more holes in the cap, and at this point everything began to get sticky, my hands, the bottle, the tools. But still the syrup was not cooperating. Those holes were just too small. Really frustrated by now, I grabbed some needle nose pliers, inserted them in a hole and tore away to make the hole larger. Now the syrup did indeed flow faster, but still the volume was poor. One more tear with the pliers might do it. And indeed, this time when I twisted the pliers inside a hole, the whole cap turned and lo and behold, I was able to measure out one cup of the darned syrup. My battle was done.
After I washed all the tools, my hands, the sink, etc., the recipe proceeded well. I heated the mixture to the prescribed temperature of 295 degrees Fahrenheit and then poured it out onto a buttered tray. One hour later, I broke it into shards and there was a perfect pile of sunflower brittle, which I looked forward to sharing with friends at a social event the next day.
Sugar is an ingredient we all take very much for granted and perhaps forget is plant-based. Before writing this post, I turned to a favorite book, Green Immigrants: the Plants That Transformed America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) by Claire Shaver Haughton. Her chapter on sugar traces the spread of sugar from India to China, on to the West Indies and Mexico. During the 13th century, after his travels to China, Marco Polo wrote of sugar as one of the wonders of the world. Sugar plantation owners grew rich on the backs of slaves as their commodity became a much coveted luxury item the world over. In colonial America, sugar was sold in cones, a shape easy to store and ship. Eventually beet sugar became a more affordable and environmentally kinder sugar crop. The sugar industry became mechanized and here we are now in the 21st century, surrounded by food products utterly saturated in sugar and corn syrup.
All things in moderation, including moderation! My sweet tooth hopes there will always be a time and place for sugar. The sunflower brittle was a hit and I find myself daydreaming of other variations using almonds, dried fruits, etc. Hopefully next time the corn syrup will be more cooperative, my candy making a little less Lucy Ball-esque. Bon appetit!
photo by KAO : homemade sunflower seed brittle