There’s a photo of me that resurfaces usually around my birthday every year. I’m maybe about a year old, pudgy and cherry-cheeked, wearing a fuzzy pink onesie (which I desperately wish would still fit me), and in my very tiny hands I’m clutching a sugar dispenser for dear life. Another family favorite is from about nine years later, in which I’m sporting a ridiculous bowl cut and holding a tray of my grandmother’s multicolored holiday cookies, my eyes as big as dinner plates. So it probably surprised approximately no one that when I was twenty-six, I opened an ice cream shop, dedicating day and night to the chemistry behind the things I’ve always craved. Sugar has been a constant theme in my life, and perhaps one of my first and most pure loves. Even as I write this, I do so with a Du’s Donuts Blueberry Crumble by my side, trying not make too much of a sticky mess of my keyboard between bites. A losing battle.
Yes, there are plenty of people who would consider this a serious problem rather than something to write home about. And sure, we know the dark side of those tiny white granules and artificially bright treats now, but I’m a firm believer in enjoying a little of everything (hey, moderation!).
When we began thinking about a theme for this winter, a time of year when we all hope to put behind us any uncertainty and stress of the first three seasons, we knew we wanted to do something that would pair with the spirit of the holidays.
We sent our contributors on a mission: give us your stories about sweets, sugar and confections of all cultures and kinds. The results were as delightful as this rapidly disappearing donut. For the next few weeks, we intend to share those findings with you, from standard-issue sugary treats, like my breakfast here and its global cousins, to bakers blazing some seriously sweet trails—I’ll even share a little about how to eat ice cream like a seasoned pro. But we were also introduced to some less common confections: South African rusks, Turkish pudding, and exploration of Indian treats all sweetened the deal. And we couldn’t forget drinks, either: complex coffee concoctions, dessert wine, and malty Christmas beers made especially for the holidays help wash it all down.
Because some things are too delicious to only read about, we enlisted our friends to share some recipes: Chef Shannon Swindle of Craft in L.A. demonstrates how to tap into natural sweetness for an after-dinner option, and the pastry pros from the third season of our Emmy-winning documentary series, The Migrant Kitchen, give us a global array of desserts. Founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes, Candace Nelson provides us a perfect party pleaser with her peppermint meringue, and Le Bernardin pastry guru Thomas Raquel steps away from his Michelin-starred kitchen to share humble home-cook-friendly pie.
I couldn’t know it when I was waddling around in my onesie pawing at sugar packets, but even natural sugars in meats and vegetables—the ones responsible for caramelization and the Maillard Reaction—can be just as enjoyable as pancakes or pumpkin pie. Sugar is a big part of what makes even the most wholesome foods wonderful. Imagine a ripe peach or pear, the honey or maple syrup produced effortlessly by nature.
The same way that spice or bitterness are a warning sign, sweetness is a signal to the body: this is enjoyable. And ‘tis the season to be a little sweeter—to one another, and to ourselves—because that, my friends, brings joy to the world.