Candy floss! Also called cotton candy (in AMERICA), this stuff is ubiquitous with the circus, carnivals, fairgrounds, and festivals.
You know the drill. It’s almost always bright pink and often comes in a plastic bag. Its innards are as light as a feather, strangely chewy, and rather delicious. And that’s because it’s pretty much pure sugar. Hurray!
A delicious treat, then, and one worth examining in closer, fluffy detail.
What’s Candy Floss?
It’s a spun sugar confection that’s ultra-light and looks a bit like cotton (and floss, if you think about it hard enough).
Food colouring is usually added to it during the creation process, often a pink colour that’s become iconic with the stuff. And it’s also often served on a stick, like it’s a toffee apple… just one of pure sugar. It’s made using a specialised machine (more on that further below).
This is another tricky food history post (along with houmous) we’ve had to compile, due to the differing global naming conventions. In the UK, it’s candy floss. Elsewhere, it’s:
- America: Cotton candy
- France: Barbe à papa (Grandfather’s beard)
- Australia: Fairy floss
- India: Grandma’s hair
- Chile: Algodón de azúcar
- Estonia: Suhkruvatt (sugar cotton)
- Greece: Grandma’s hair
- Hungary: Vattacukor (cotton-wool sugar)
- Indonesia: Gulali
- Italy: Zucchero filato
- Japan: Watakashi (綿菓子)
- Norway: Sugar spin
Good, eh? Whatever the name, it’s the same stuff! Very popular with kids, an indulgent treat for adults.
The History of Candy Floss
Some of the earliest examples of spun sugar hails from Europe during the 19th century. Back then, it was an expensive process (as sugar was rare back then), which meant candy floss was for the upper-classes.
However, other sources suggest it dates further back than that. Cottoncandy.net states the following.
“Cotton candy was actually a popular trend in Italy that began in the 1400’s. The old fashioned way of making cotton candy – or spun sugar as it was called – was to melt sugar in a pan and then use a fork to make strings of sugar over an upside down bowl. The sugar would then dry in strings and be served as a dessert. This process of making spun sugar wasn’t practical in the least – especially not for mass production; it was simply too time consuming.”
What is clear is William James Morrison (1860-1926) and John C. Wharton invented a machine-spun cotton candy contraption.
In 1904 at the World’s Far in the US, it was unveiled for the first time. And get this! Morrison was a dentist. Apt.
Then, on September 6th 1905, Albert D. Robinson of Massachusetts patented the Electric Candy-Spinning Machine. This thing consisted of:
- An electronic starter
- A motor-driven rotatable bowl
He handed the rights over to New York’s General Electric Company in 1907 and, to this day, his design is still used for basic candy floss machines.
These days, the biggest cotton candy company in the world is America’s Tootsie Roll Industries. And Americans even celebrate a National Cotton Candy Day on December 7th. They also have a National Cheesecake Day we found out about recently.
For us in the UK, the stuff is mainly associated with fairgrounds.
But for most people worldwide, it’s no doubt a lingering (and pleasant) nostalgic memory from your carefree days of childhood.
That means it often turns up in pop culture. The Stone Roses’ (Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister is a clear nod to candy floss.
This early demo of the song from 1986 features a clear reference to it! However, those bits of the lyrics were removed for the band’s eponymous debut album.
These days, candy floss isn’t really in the news much. It’s almost never on the frontpage of The New York Times, for example; “Cotton Candy is the Shizz!” Or something.
Or maybe this is just a sign we’re not kids anymore and don’t hang around fairgrounds as much, when candy floss used to delight us so.
We doff our caps to its sugary, pink badness.
To be fair, cotton candy isn’t too horrendous on a health front. You’re much better off giving your kids this stuff over a can of fizzy drink.
One big batch of candy floss contains about one tablespoon of sugar. Whereas a can of fizzy packs some 18-22 tablespoons.
How Do Candy Floss Machines Work?
Cotton candy machines have a spinning head in the centre of the contraption. That thing holds the sugar, which is often coloured before being added to the machine.
And the big old rim contains heaters—the sugar leaves the spinning head gradually through tiny holes by centrifugal force. That creates a kind of molten candy (see the documentary Fire of Love for something totally unconnected).
Okay, let’s break that down into four steps then:
- Add sugar to the spinning head: Add your coloured sugar to the central spinner, as glory awaits!
- Melt and fling: The sugar trickles down into the heating section of the machine and is whipped into a frenzy at 300 degrees! The sugar melts and the spinning hub whips the stuff up at 3,450rpm.
- Floss slits: Around the heating bit is the floss band, which is a black steel ring. That disperses the melted sugar into its flossy state.
- Cool the candy: Whipped up sugar is created! It immediately begins to cool, with the machine operator needing to gather the floss from the sides of the pan.
And that’s it! And you can do all of that from the comfort of your own home, should you so wish!
How to Make Candy Floss
Okay, you need a bit more than an oven, an egg whisk, and a bag of sugar for this one—it takes a specialised machine to get your floss together.
Traditional candy floss from the 15th century was made by melting sugar in a pan, then using a fork to tease out strings of the stuff.
Those strings were then hung over a bowl and left to cool.
You can try that method if you want. But you could also just get a mini-cotton candy making machine. Hurray! Wow your kids with this SOB, any day of the week. And there are a few ingredients you’ll need here:
Food colouring of choice (i.e. pink)
Well, seems easy enough doesn’t it? One to aim for if you want to wow your kids with the joys of heated implements and sugar. Go pink. Go candy floss.