For a 4th of July BBQ, a successful experiment making cotton candy flavored with tarragon, peach, corn, and smoked tea:
For a while, hannah and I had been kicking around the idea of “savory cotton candy” (or at least, sweet but flavored with something beyond vanilla). What would that even be like? With a 4th of July BBQ approaching, this seemed like the now-or-never time to actually try it. Some searching found a few bulletin board discussions about how you might do it, but only one set of photographic evidence… and that came with no description of how.
Early on, we’d been thinking of everything from creating flavored powders from freeze-dried fruit, to infused sugar syrups, to flavored dry sugars, to dry powdered caramels created with maltodextrin molecular-gastronomy-style (we ruled out sprinkling powdered flavoring on the cotton candy after spinning it as not “elegant” enough). After some reading we understood how a cotton candy machine works: it melts sugar and spins it rapidly in a bowl with small slots around the perimeter, and the inertia (a.k.a. centrifugal force) drives tiny jets of liquid sugar into the surrounding air, where they near-instantly cool and recrystallize in long, wispy strands. To experiment, we rented a cotton candy machine from a party supply store:
This and other discussions online convinced us of something that seems obvious in retrospect: we needed to be spinning basically pure sugar, as any other starches or cellulose (fruit or vegetable matter) or significant amounts of fat wouldn’t melt at the same temperature and might burn on the heater. People also debated whether special “floss sugar” sold by cotton candy companies was necessary, or if you could use standard granulated cane sugar, with strong opinions in each direction. We tried both, and found granulated sugar worked quite well– which was fortunate as the only floss sugar we could find was already packed with artificial vanilla flavor and pink dye.
Finally, back to the question of how to flavor the sugar. Making vanilla sugar is a simple process– you just pack a vanilla bean in sugar and wait. But how to make this work for herbs, fruit, smoke? We tried packing fresh tarragon in sugar and it infused some flavor into the sugar… but it wasn’t as strong as we’d hoped. We also tried cooking peaches in sugar to make a syrup, then spreading it out on a dehydrator tray, but after a few days we still had a somewhat gummy sugar (presumably if we had enough time it would eventually dry out).
Finally, we tried soaking ingredients in alcohol– that works for infusing vodka with flavor, and we reasoned the alcohol would also be easier to evaporate out of sugar than water. Success! In particular, we soaked fresh tarragon, peaches we’d pre-dehyrdrated, fresh corn kernels, and lapsang souchong smoked black tea (trying to evoke something like “gunpowder” in honor of the 4th of July) in high-proof everclear for a few days:
Then we strained the alcohols into spray bottles and misted them over a thin layer of sugar spread out on a tray. This allowed us to have an intensely flavored yet very slightly moist sugar that we could bring back to dry overnight in the dehydrator, then grind up with a mortar and pestle:
At long last, our four flavored sugars, ready for their big day:
We rented the cotton candy machine again (this time, including the decorative cart) and spun about 40 cones of cotton candy for friends and kids. My personal favorite was the smoked tea– it was certainly the most unexpected.