Sugar Work (Pastry School Flashbacks)

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One of my goals for this year is to start practicing my neglected sugar work skills again. Last week’s cupcakes gave me the motivation to round up all of my equipment. Now that I have it located and dusted off, I’m hoping to relearn what I used to know and share the techniques here as I revisit them. In the meantime, I’ve been looking over my old notes and pictures to refresh my memory. Inspired by the post Hayley did at Hayley Bakes of her “vintage” cakes, I thought it would be fun to do something similar with my old pastry school photos, starting with the sugar stuff. (These photos were all taken with my old point and shoot digital camera, or even worse my digital video camera’s still photo function for the first few, so they look a little different from my usual!)

First, a comparison. This was the first showpiece I ever made:

Sugar Work - My First Showpiece

And this is the one I made nine months later for my graduation portfolio review and reception:

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

The sugar technique on my cupcakes last week, as cute as I think they turned out, falls slightly closer to the first showpiece than the last on my ability spectrum, so I have some ground to make up.

In my defense, that first showpiece was not designed by me in any way, shape, or form, but the execution was all me (except for the ribbons, which look pretty good but were made by the instructor). Maybe it was a good thing that I really didn’t like the design or the colors, because at the time it took my mind off of how frustrated I was that I couldn’t make the sugar do what I wanted it to.

This was back during my first quarter of pastry school. Our chef instructor for that term offered three-day showpiece workshops out of his home, and I was really excited to take the chocolate one. He was also offering a sugar work workshop. I wasn’t sure that I was that interested in it, but Chris and I decided that I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to learn the skill, so I signed up for both the sugar and chocolate classes.

The sugar workshop came first. I went into it really looking forward to the next workshop when I’d get to work with chocolate, but sugar…well, either you love working with it or you don’t, and from what I’ve seen, your first impression is the one that sticks. If you’re going to bond with the sugar, it’s love at first sight. Or first pull, in this case. I think you have to have a certain type of personality, or maybe just naturally cold hands.

Whatever it was, I had it. I loved the way it moved, from a hot, fast pour to the slow stretches that folded layers of reflective sheen beneath its colorful surface. I loved the heat on my face, the slight sunburn I’d walk away with at the end of the day. I was frustrated with trying to pull petals for the simple flowers on that first showpiece, but on the second day, while making roses for our second showpiece of the workshop, it clicked.

Sugar Work - Fruit Showpiece

This piece combines a number of different techniques. The peach on the left is blown sugar that was then painted and dusted with cornstarch to simulate peach fuzz, the pear is pressed sugar formed and dried in a silicone mold, and the log, leaves and roses are pulled sugar. The base is cast sugar that was poured into a depression in a container of regular granulated sugar to achieve the crystalline outer surface.

By this time, I was really enjoying myself. The next showpiece we did was a giant flower:

Sugar Work - Flower

The petals are pastillage (which is vaguely like rolled fondant, but dries extremely hard), the stamens are tiny strings of pulled sugar that were trimmed and fused together, the base is a round of pressed sugar, the stem is sugar molded in a clear vinyl pipe that was cut away to remove it. It’s held up by more pieces of cast sugar that we made at the same time as the base for the previous piece. I’m not as much of a fan of working with pastillage as I am of sugar–it’s a pain to work with because it dries out so quickly–but I liked the way it looked on this piece.

Sugar Work - Swan

This was the final piece we made that weekend, a blown sugar swan. (Ignore its beak…I couldn’t make it not look wonky.) That time, I made the ribbons myself.

The chef had equipment available to purchase. I was hooked, so a sugar station (an acrylic enclosure that suspends an adjustable heat lamp over a silicone mat pulled tight around a wooden frame like a painter’s canvas) came home with me. I started playing around with some of the techniques at home.

Sugar Work - Roses

This is a little piece I made at home for my mother-in-law’s Mother’s Day present. She still has it behind the glass in her china cabinet, and I’m shocked at how well it’s held up over the years.

Sugar Work - Bubbles

Learning how to work with sugar at the beginning of my pastry school experience was often useful to me in class, especially on this first cake I did for the wedding cake unit during our third quarter. I made the sugar bubbles on top and brought them in, since I didn’t want to lug all of my equipment to school. I wish I’d had time to make enough bubbles to decorate the lower tiers of the cake, especially considering I couldn’t get the icing color to match the sugar color thanks to the yellow undertone. That’s what you get when you want real butter in your buttercream.

Sugar Work - Apple

During our last quarter in pastry school, we finally learned how to do some basic sugar work as part of the coursework. Fortunately, I was already ahead of the game thanks to the sugar workshop. This is the prettiest apple I’ve ever made. And this photo was taken about a minute before I dropped it. As a pastry cook or cake decorator, you have to get used to watching your hard work and artistry be destroyed and devoured in minutes. Sugar takes that to a completely different level, especially when it suddenly shatters into a million pieces for no apparent reason.

Sugar Work

While everyone else was learning how to do sugar for the first time and trying to blow blobs of sugar into the fruit we were supposed to make, I finished early and messed around with extra sugar.

Sugar Work

Still just messing around with scraps.

Later that quarter, we began to prepare for Portfolio, which was technically our big final project/portfolio review but mostly just a crowded pre-graduation reception for our friends and family. I spent months and months on my chocolate showpiece (another story for another time) and made what I thought was a very pretty little two-tiered cake, but what I got hundreds of compliments on was my sugar showpiece that I banged out over the course of three nights right before Portfolio.

For this showpiece, I was following directions from Sucre d’art, l’envers du décor (Sugarworks, Behind the Scenes) by Stéphane Glacier. This is a wonderful book for anyone who is interested in sugar decorations and showpieces. I have a few other professional books on the subject, but they’re all on the older, outdated side. This book shows gorgeous, modern, vivid, sleek work. Having made one of the showpieces from it, I can vouch for the directions (and their translation into English) being clear enough to follow. Even without all the information, the photos in the book were worth the price to me.

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

So, here is the first dolphin I used on the showpiece. (I’m aware that anatomically it’s not quite a dolphin, as Chris pointed out to me long ago. I was following directions, and that’s what it’s called in the book.) I made six dolphins in total, and this one won the beauty contest. I liked it’s personality, and it had the nicest curve to its body of all of them.

I thought the dolphins would be much more difficult to make than they were. The dolphin’s mouth, for example, is part of the blown sugar piece rather than just stuck on later. The line across where his eyes would be had to be marked in with a paring knife to control the shape as it expanded and cooled. But as I was working on them, the techniques really didn’t seem that hard at all, which means I don’t think I’d pushed myself far enough before that point. Or after that, since this was the last time I did anything substantial with sugar until last week.

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

Here I am airbrushing the color onto the dolphin. This is one of the few pictures I have of myself from pastry school, mostly because I thought this part was so cool that I needed to have a photo of it and planned ahead.

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

And here is the whole thing, finished and ready to be moved into place for the big day. Notice the curve of the dolphin’s body, the way it seems to ride the wave…

A moment after I took this photo, I picked the showpiece up and moved it to the next table over. As I set it down, very carefully, the dolphin shattered.

I nearly cried.

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

Fortunately, I had other dolphins, but none of them were anywhere close to the first one.

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

I want to pan down for a moment and focus on something other than the dolphin, because the crashing waves were very fun to make and very cool to look at. See the thin pieces of sugar, how they have bubbles in them? They’re made by shaking hot sugar down a piece of silicone paper (a piece of parchment paper that’s covered in silicone). Very easy to do, but very effective. There are also huge chunks of broken poured sugar holding the whole thing up and giving it a watery sort of depth. You can’t see it in this picture, but if you look up above at the top left of the big circle, you’ll notice that the colors even swirled in the same direction as the wave was supposed to be moving. I was quite proud of that.

Sugar Work - Dolphin Showpiece

At least the second dolphin looked pretty playful, as if he was leaping and twisting, about to dive back under the waves. In the end, I liked him too, even if he wasn’t the original. He did manage to stay intact through Portfolio, which is more than I can say for the first one.

Other Sugar Work Posts at Pie of the Tiger:
Sugar Work Lesson 1: Casting Sugar
Cadbury Creme Brul’egg
Sugar Work Equipment
Battlestar Galactica Cupcakes with Sugar Decorations

34 thoughts on “Sugar Work (Pastry School Flashbacks)

  1. Hayley

    I love getting to see all your sugar work!

    I’m one of those people who loved sugar immediately (even through the blisters!). My chefs kept telling us that if you like sugar you need to work with it regularly…apparently it’s one of those mediums where the phrase “use it or lose it” definitely applies. I really want to invest in some equipment so I can work with it at home…but we’ll see.

    So sad about the dolphin on that last piece. 🙁 I broke a lot when I worked with sugar in class…guess part of the challenge of sugar is learning to deal with breakage and improvising 🙂

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      I’m going to post about my equipment soon. Really, there are only a few things you absolutely need, and most of it you could make (or have someone make for you). My setup was made by my chef…I’m sure he made a ton of money off of selling it to me because my husband says it would be cheap to make. 🙂 But yeah, I’m really feeling the “use it or lose it” effect right now. I don’t know why I don’t do it every day! It’s so much fun, I have the equipment, and you can just melt stuff down and play with it again (to a certain extent).

      I think you should definitely get some equipment as soon as you can and start practicing. Not a lot of pastry people really know how or like to do it, and even fewer are very good at it, so it sets you apart.

      I’m still sad about that dolphin! It was tragic, I tell you.

  2. Maja

    How DO you do that? It’s totally amazing … i know you did those in pastry school, but could you pull it of at home? That is, could i, knowing nothing about how to make sugar so hot and pliable? 😉

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      I can do about 95% of it at home. The one piece of equipment I used up there that I don’t have (anymore) is an airbrush. I had one, but I ended up donating it to the school because the one we were using broke or something while we were the middle of getting ready for our big final presentation. Otherwise, the main thing that I find difficult at home is getting the sugar not to be sticky after it hardens. It’s humid here in Seattle, so it was easier to do that at school where we had air conditioning and relatively-drier air. There are ways around it, but I have to figure them out again.

      You could certainly do it at home! I’m working toward doing some how-to posts. Next time I’m going to show my equipment and what I think it essential, but I did some basic stuff with pulled sugar years ago in my apartment in college, and it doesn’t take a lot of equipment to go further than that. After that, I’ll try to show how to make the sugar and use it…if I can figure out hot to juggle molten sugar and my camera at the same time. 😉

  3. Beau

    WOW! I had no idea you could even make sugar do things like that! I’m going to have to look deeper in to this and see if they have it at my school.

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      Thanks! It really is one of those things where you have to have the “opportunity” to do it, because for some reason it’s not really wide-spread knowledge that you can do a lot of this stuff at home.

  4. Patty Tolbert

    I loved your post and all of the photos! It made me nostolgic for my pastry school days. I graduated 6 years ago and just yesterday I added a few pics to my blog from school and my final project, which was the Evil Queen from Snow White done in pulled suger. I loved the apple you made. I made a tiny one for the queen’s hand. Keep up the great work. I can totally relate to your love of sugar and chocolate work. Those were my two favorite things I learned at WCI and I didn’t think I would care for either.

      1. maddy

        Loved your work. I am looking for a good sugar work book to gift a friend could you give a few suggestions.

        1. Jessica Petersen Post author

          Unfortunately, the only one I have that I’d whole-heartedly recommend is Sucre d’art, l’envers du décor (Sugarworks, Behind the Scenes) by Stéphane Glacier, but I can’t find a copy anywhere that doesn’t cost several hundred dollars. I remember it being expensive, but not that expensive! If you can track that one down, it’s amazing.

          There seem to be some suggestions here:

  5. Susanne Hibbert

    Thank you so much for the inspiration. I just recently started doing Subtleties/Illusion foods; which brought me to working with sugar. Please keep on posting!

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