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Fairy floss

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"The fluffy carnival treat is like nothing else edible. What else feels lighter than air in your hand and seems to evaporate once it gets past your lips, leaving only sweetness and red dye? " Veronique Greenwood - BBC Future

This post sort of came out of nowhere which is somehow appropriate for something so ephemeral, so almost nothing.

Well this is my starting point. A fairly ordinary painting by a completely unknown to me artist called Clive Uptton and simply called The Fair. It's my desk calendar piece of art for the day. I guess it's pretty evocative of an old-fashioned fair. The fairs of my youth. Do fairs like this exist today? I suspect for a start the heater-skelter - the giant curving slide has long gone. Replaced by much more high tech things like water slides in themed water parks. Anyway for some reason 'fairy floss' popped into my head. And I have now realised that I am now more Australian than I thought. Because according to virtually all the sources I have now consulted Australia is now the only country in the world that calls it by its original name 'fairy floss'. And I thought that I had always called it fairy floss. But no, according to all of those same sources it is called candy floss in Britain. I truly do not remember that. In America it is cotton candy. Elsewhere in the world there are slightly different versions the most famous of which seem to be the Persian Pashmak - now very trendy and available in expensive gourmet supermarkets - and dragon's beard from Korea.

So first a tiny bit of history. Sugar back in the middle ages was really, really expensive and only available for aristocrats, but their cooks worked out how to make spun sugar, with forks, wooden rods, and dexterity and fashioned it into beautiful shapes. Indeed it's still a high-class kind of decoration on various desserts such as these:

Then they worked out how to pull heated sugar into strands, as they still do with the Middle-eastern and Asian versions. Watch this video to get the idea - and there's a whole lot of other ones on the same page. Sometimes there are machines to help, but mostly the process is by hand.

Or go to A Little Zaftig for a recipe and a detailed written explanation with lots of pictures. This is just one of them. Basically you make a sugary syrup, cool it a bit and then keep folding it somehow so that you eventually get this. Be careful you don't burn yourself to begin with though.

Our western version though is made in machines that were first invented by an American dentist and his confectioner friend back in 1897 and introduced at the world fair of 1914. The BBC Future website explains the process much better than I could:

"Candyfloss begins as solid sugar, which is poured into a little hopper with a heating element. Surrounding the mouth of the hopper is a ring pierced with minuscule holes; surrounding that is a big metal receptacle a lot like an oversized cake pan. As the heating element melts the sugar into a liquid, a motor sets the whole contraption spinning.

A fringe of liquid sugar, not even really visible to the naked eye in videos of the process, shoots out of the hopper onto the ring. There, it's flung by the force of the spin through the tiny holes, emerging onto the other side as a bunch of nearly invisible threads.

While the mass of sugar starts out molten, being split into so many little pieces gives it much greater surface area than before – much more of it is exposed to the cooler air – and so it goes from being liquid to being solid in an instant. The resulting sugar cobweb collects all around the inside of the big pan, and you can use a paper cone to lift it out and wrap it up into the familiar pouf." Veronique Greenwood - BBC Future

It's sort of magic isn't it? Sort of there and yet not. And apparently even though it's really just sugar it's actually not that full of calories:

"While these are hardly the stuff of the ideal diet, cotton candy, surprisingly, is the least caloric of the lot, a mere 105 calories for a standard one-ounce serving. The reason for this is that cotton candy is mostly non-caloric air. The rest, however, is pure sugar." Rebecca Rupp - National Geographic

So don't eat a lot of it. But then you wouldn't would you as most of us are not going to fairs that often. If you're really addicted though and if you have a lot of kitchen bench space you can make it at home in a home size machine. Rhik Samadder of The Guardian tested one out and was pretty pleased with the results until he had to clean it out:

"Adulthood – that transition from funfair to unfair – is epitomised in the scouring of a candy-floss machine; the realisation that fun is the herald of regret, and that it’s time to put away childish things." Rhik Samadder

I gather though, that it, particularly the Persian Pashmak which is sold here at places like Leo's and The Essential Ingredient, has become quite a thing. An article on Ordermentum which is some kind of marketing site I think, has identified several trends for its use in Australia, and in America surrounding soft serve ice cream with a blanket of cotton candy is a bit of a craze. Mostly it's use is purely decorative though: Fairy floss martini, Cotton candy s'mores,

Red and green fruit salad with vanilla Persian fairy floss and then that soft serve ice cream and as a decoration on some meringues.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I found though was that:

"some researchers are using candyfloss machines to help grow new tissues in the lab." Veronique Greenwood - BBC Future

Yes you can make human flesh. There is a paper called: Development of 3D Microvascular Networks Within Gelatin Hydrogels Using Thermoresponsive Sacrificial Microfibers, and the Abstract had a diagram showing the process. 'Sacrificial microfibres'. Now there's a catch phrase. How can a fibre be sacrificial? There is no way I can pretend to understand this, but isn't it wonderful that from something as inconsequential as fairy floss can come human tissue.

When really it's almost just multicoloured air.


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