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Five unusual ingredients in sweets

The number and variety of sweet treats in the world is staggering. Though many of us are familiar with the use of fresh fruits in desserts, flavorings in candy, and other ubiquitous ingredients, a great deal are unusual. They’re unusual in the sense that they’re “not commonly occurring,” or that we believe them to be so. With that, here are five ingredients you might find, but not expect, in your next dessert.

Ambergris

  • What it is: A waxy calculus that is created in the digestive tracts of sperm whales in response to irritation caused by the sharp, indigestible beaks of ingested squid.
  • How it’s used: It was an important flavoring in high-status renaissance and baroque confectionery and cookery.
  • What types of sweets it’s used in: Dragees, biscuits, pudding
Sperm Whale. Photo by Biodiversity Heritage Library. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Sperm Whale. Photo by Biodiversity Heritage Library. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Castoreum

  • What it is: A fragrant food additive harvested from castor sacs at the base of a beaver’s tail.
  • How it’s used: As an occasional flavoring ingredient, commonly as a vanilla substitute.
  • What types of sweets it’s used in: Baked goods, candies, puddings, beverages, gum, cigarettes, Swedish schnapps (specifically BVR HJT)
Happy Beaver. Photo by Steve. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
Happy Beaver. Photo by Steve. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Insects

  • What it is: A small arthropod animal that has six legs and generally one or two pairs of wings.
  • How it’s used: Traces of them show up in about every edible substance but is sometimes used as a “gross out” novelty factor.
  • What types of sweets it’s used in: Chocolate-covered (e.g., ants), encased in lollipops (e.g., Cricket Lick-It Suckers), in toffee (e.g., InsectNside Scorpion Brittle)
Ant peering over the edge of a leaf. Photo by photochem_PA. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Ant peering over the edge of a leaf. Photo by photochem_PA. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Pekmez

  • What it is: A grape molasses made from freshly extracted grape juice that is simmered to condense to roughly one-third or one-fourth of its original volume. Also known as petimezi in Greek; vincotto, sapa, or saba in Italian; dibs el inab, debess ennab, or debs el enab in Arabic.
  • How it’s used: As a sweetener—popular when sugar was expensive.
  • What types of sweets it’s used in: Cookies, Turkish delight, fried dough puffs, as a topping for various desserts
Grapes. Photo by tribp. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Grapes. Photo by tribp. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Tragacanth

  • What it is: A gum exudate obtained from various species of wild goat thorn native to the Mediterranean and Middle East.
  • How it’s used: As a binding agent of gum paste and other edible modeling materials.
  • What types of sweets it’s used in: Edible decorations, occasionally used in a few specialized goods and biscuits during the early modern period
Photo by Lisa Marklund. CC By 2.0 via Flickr.
Photo by Lisa Marklund. CC By 2.0 via Flickr.

Are there any other ingredients in sweets that you think are unusual?

Featured image: Baking. CC0 via Pixabay.

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