Like any faithful viewer of "Top Chef," I am familiar with molecular gastronomy, the futuristic style of cooking that utilizes tools and ingredients from a chemistry lab to transform olive oil into crispy chips or spinach into foam. This kind of food is exciting to eat at a trendy restaurant. But in my own kitchen, I prefer the familiarity of a plain old egg and cheese sandwich to the shock of a sous vide egg with croissant foam. So I was skeptical when confronted with a sleek home cook’s kit from a Canadian outfit called Molecule-R.
A small canister of carbonated sugar, however, captured my interest. This miraculous substance was created in a General Foods lab by food chemist William Mitchell in 1956, as part of the company’s effort to make a powdered soft drink. Mitchell melted and then cooled sugar in the presence of pressurized carbon dioxide, trapping gas inside bits of sugar in the process. Although it didn’t produce a bubbly soda when added to water, it did pop inside the mouth when eaten on its own. In 1975, it was marketed as a candy, under the name Pop Rocks. Because I am a child of the ’70s, I found the idea of desserts made with carbonated sugar nostalgic rather than cutting edge. Suddenly, I wanted to make an exploding chocolate cake.
After a little research, I revised my plans. I learned that popping sugar melts on contact with most liquids. (For this reason, it is important to store the sugar in an airtight container in a dry place.) So stirring it into a cake batter made with milk would release those carbon dioxide bubbles before they reached my mouth. Carbonated sugar doesn’t melt on contact with fats, so it is very effective when added to buttercream frosting or sprinkled over chocolate-covered fruit or pretzels. Here are a few ideas:
Cupcakes with popping sugar buttercream
For a fizzy celebration, stir popping sugar into buttercream before frosting cupcakes.
Popping bacon candy
Coat slices of bacon with brown sugar and a little cinnamon. Place on a greased rack set over a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven until caramelized, about 15 minutes. Let cool slightly. Sprinkle with popping sugar while still warm and let cool before eating.
Popping nut crunch
Combine a tablespoon of butter, 1/4 cup light brown sugar and 2 tablespoons corn syrup in a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Stir in 2 cups mixed salted nuts, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and roast on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before sprinkling 1 tablespoon popping sugar over warm nuts. Let cool completely and break into small pieces.
Crunch and pop bars
Carbonated sugar gives these homemade candy bars real snap, crackle, and pop. Melt 12 ounces of milk chocolate, mix with 1/2 cup of crisp rice cereal, and spread across the bottom of a foil-lined 8-inch square baking pan. Sprinkle with popping sugar. When set, cut into bars.
Edge your glasses with a mixture of salt and popping sugar (taking care not to moisten any of the sugar when you pour in the liquid) for a drink that really pops.
Note: You can make your own popping sugar if you have citric acid crystals and a candy thermometer.
You can also buy it at specialty foods stores and online. Mine came from molecule-r.com.
Modernistpantry.com is another source for home cooks looking for molecular gastronomy ingredients in small quantities.
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon popping sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup fresh raspberries
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave until almost, but not completely, melted. Stir until completely melted and smooth. Set aside to cool slightly. Stir in popping sugar (don’t worry if you hear some popping; most of the sugar will not pop until eaten).
Drop 2 or 3 raspberries at a time in chocolate, covering some, but not all, of the berry. Scoop out of bowl with a fork, letting excess chocolate drip back into bowl. Place partially covered raspberry clusters (it’s OK to let 2 or 3 berries stick together) on a baking sheet and sprinkle with popping sugar. Repeat with remaining berries, chocolate and sugar.
Place baking sheet in refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours before serving. Makes 4 servings.