Of all the culinary specialties, sugar has changed the least in four centuries. Sugar dissolves in water in the same way it always did, boiling and then cooking to the same crucial stages, the thread, the soft ball, and the crack. Pastry chefs often still test sugar by dipping a ball into cold water and kneading it with their fingers, just the way it was done long before the thermometer was invented.
Sir Hugh Platt writing in his 1609 Delights for Ladies describes the techniques that are shown in Nicolas de Bonnefons’ Le jardinier François (1666) where ladies wearing frilly aprons are cooking up sugary treats. The solid sugar is in solid cones stacked on shelves in the back of the kitchen. It must be cut with the cleaver, then crushed with the pestle and mortar (in the foreground) before being dissolved in water for sugar syrup or a coating for the dragées being stirred on the right.
Aside from now coming conveniently packaged in the form of perfect white cubes, the sugar itself has scarcely changed at all. It still falls to the bottom of our teacups in a sticky clump as Pagan Kennedy describes in “Who Made That?” It’s still the magical substance it always was – making everything in life a little bit sweeter.