Remember candy apples? Sure you do; it was the one candy your parents felt good about giving you since it contained some goodness. There’s something special about the combination of the sweet-sourness of fruit combined with candy. No childhood is complete without candied fruit, and it’s certainly not something you give up when you “grow up.”
Bing Tanghulu is the Chinese name for candied fruits threaded onto a skewer, a little like kebabs. and makes a great gift from parents or grandparents to children, or as a bunch of edible “flowers” for a lover. Whatever your excuse, no-body is going to be disappointed in the exchange. With gift-giving season just around the corner, candied fruit makes an excellent gift to share at Christmas for young and old, and makes a stunning display on your celebration dinner table.
Today, we’re going to candy-coat other kinds of fruit, but first a little history.
Some say Bing Tanghulu originated back in the Song Dynasty when one of the Emperor’s concubines was sick and the doctor prescribed hawthorn berries, still on the twig, dipped in rock sugar syrup. It is said this led the way for candy-coated fruit.
However, the story has flaws since candied hawthorn berries, or candied anything for that matter, was not within reach of the common folk at that time. Although sugar cane technology was introduced from India back in the Tang Dynasty, sugar was a luxury for a long time, and only rock sugar was found in ancient books as a medicine, far from being universally accessible.
Westerners of the same period did not even know sugar existed and were still using honey as their main sweetener, which was also fairly limited to the upper classes. After the colonial era, sugar was made available to Europeans, and since then sugar cane cultivation and the sugar industry became a driving force for European overseas expansion.
In the 1830s, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, significant progress was made in sugar-making technology. Sugar suddenly turned from being an exclusive luxury item to a common household food enjoyed by all classes.
Various kinds of food made from sugar could also be transported and the confectionery industry was born, with “toffee” coming out of that era.
Today, I will introduce to you how to make sweet and crispy Bing Tanghulu at home. Let’s bring back those sweet childhood memories!
You can use any of your favorite fruits in this recipe, though I am partial to small fruits because I think they look cute on the end of a stick and are very manageable. Crabapples, strawberries, grapes, kiwifruit – you name it – just use your favorites; a bunch of varied bright colors always looks great. Though it’s good to keep in mind that the main feature of candied fruit is the pairing of two very different flavors – sweet and sour, so the more sour fruits work best, that way, you counter the sweetness of the candy without overpowering it or making it taste too sweet.
I use strawberries in this recipe – choose good sized, firm, ripe ones.
Prepare the strawberries by simply washing them and cutting off the leaves with a paring knife. Don’t cut off too much as you want enough room for the skewer. Finally, blot the strawberries dry with kitchen paper, or any small droplets of water will react with the hot sugar syrup and splatter.
In addition to strawberries, kiwifruit is also a good choice, especially the green kiwi, which has a nice sour taste. Golden kiwi is also delicious, but the flesh tends to be softer and therefore a little more difficult to work with. Making the slices thicker will help make them more robust.
Choosing the ingredients is the easy part, just be careful not to munch away at them while you are preparing the syrup! The syrup is the challenging part and may take a couple of attempts to master.
For Bing Tanghulu, the crispiness of the candy is the most critical requirement. The candy should be crispy, similar to thin ice in consistency, and not sticky. The trick is to boil the syrup for exactly the right amount of time. If it is not boiled long enough, it will not set properly and will be sticky. If boiled too long, it will become bitter.
Getting the temperature right is the key to getting your syrup right, and knowing how long to boil it. If the syrup temperature is above 150 degrees Celsius and the water content is below 1%, it is in a “hard and brittle” stage and after cooling it will taste crisp. When the temperature reaches 170 degrees Celsius, it turns brown, and by the time it reaches 177 degrees Celsius, it becomes bitter. So, 150-170o C is the range for making the best candy for coating fruit.
Although simple, homemade Bing Tanghulu has two challenges: very fast temperature change and a low volume of sugar, making it difficult to effectively control the temperature of the syrup even with a precision digital thermometer, so the easiest way is to observe the color of the syrup. As the syrup shows a hint of yellow, it means the heat has arrived, and you can remove the pot from the stove. If you still not sure, test a little syrup by dipping a chopstick into the syrup and cooling it quickly in water for a few seconds, and then bite down on it. If it is very brittle and not sticky, it’s ready.
Although my husband and I have done a lot of research online, our first two attempts failed. The reason for the failure was syrup crystallization. When sucrose dissolved in syrup precipitates rapidly in a very short period of time, it should produce a clear solution, but as you can see from the picture below, it looks anything but transparent.
We analyzed the situation, and determined that the problem was in the mixing part. At the start, being worried the sugar would not fully dissolve in the water, we stirred the mixture constantly. This caused the sugar solution to stick to the sides of the pot as crystals, and when heated these crystals would drop back into the syrup having to start the dissolving process. This of course led to more stirring, and it became a catch-22. It just accelerated the crystallization process and produced a grainy mixture.
Just one more point before we get cooking – sugar syrup is very hot and children should be kept away from the stove while it is cooking.
How to Make Bing Tanghulu
Add 100 ml of water and 200 grams of white sugar to a small pot. Take care to pour the sugar into the middle of the pot and avoid getting any on the pot sides. Turn on the stove to medium to high, but do not allow the flame to touch the sides of the pot.
At the beginning, the solution is cloudy, but don’t be tempted to stir it – stand on the sidelines, do not do anything. As the bubbles begin to roll, the remaining sugar will gradually dissolve, and the solution will become clear. Note that the entire process requires a moderate to high flame and violent tumbling bubbles can hinder the formation of crystalline particles, just as flowing water is less susceptible to freezing than still water.
Wait until the syrup is clear and shows a hint of yellow, or test with chopsticks as outlined above. If the syrup is ready, immediately remove the pot from the stove. Even once it’s removed from the stove, the syrup will continue to deepen in color to amber. If you do not like the deeper color, you can prepare a large basin of cold water in advance, and immediately dip the pot into the cold water to cool it down and stop the cooking process.
The risk attached to doing this is that it may trigger crystallization, so you need to weigh it up: whether it’s a slightly darker color syrup, or in the quest for perfection and a lighter color, risk crystallization after it has cooked. Many store syrups are amber, and the Emperor’s concubine’s candied hawthorn was also amber.
Tilt the sugar pot to make a deeper place to dip the fruit into. Quickly dip and turn the fruit in the syrup to coat evenly – you need to work quickly or the syrup will heat the fruit. If you find the syrup is thickening and harder to work with, put the pot back on the stove briefly to restore the syrup’s liquidity.
Traditionally, Bing Tanghulu is cooled on a water-soaked wooden board, but this will form a flat surface at the bottom. If you don’t like that look, you can cool the Bing Tanghulu on a rack so the fruit is raised from the surface, as shown below, though you may get “drips” instead of a flattened surface.
Wait until the Bing Tanghulu cools down and you can put them up in a suitable place for everyone to share.
Cooking Tips for Bing Tanghulu:
- Do not use a wok for boiling sugar syrup – thewok surface impurities will penetrate the syrup and discolor it. The best tool is a copper pot due to its superior heat conductivity, quick time to come to temperature and fast cool down rate – all very important when making candy. Copper pots are a little on the expensive side, but so worth the investment. Also, use a single, silicon or plastic handled pot for this recipe, so your other hand is free to dip the fruit.
- Take extra care if you have children around when making sugar syrup.
- When coating thefruits with syrup, move quickly while the syrup is thin and runny, which produces the crispy texture you’re after, and the fruit is not scalded. The picture belowshows a good example of the kind of result you want to achieve.