Friday, June 05, 2009

CakeWalk: The silver dragée strikes again!

Vanilla Twinkle cupcakes at Billy's Bakery are ripe with the controversial dragée (Photo courtesy of Rachel Kramer Bussel, Cupcakes Take The Cake)


CakeWalk is a weekly column by Mary Ann Porch dedicated to every baker who has ever struggled to achieve the right consistency with their icing, unsuccessfully searched for the perfect cupcake topper or just wants to learn something new. Because with a few helpful tips, cupcakes are a cakewalk.



The topic of regional foods has been pretty prominent in my conversations lately. I attended a panel discussion focused entirely on Marhshmallow Fluff, a New England delicacy, a few weeks ago at the Astor Center here in New York, and while Allison, one of my best friends was visiting from San Francisco, I learned that not all cupcake sprinkle options are created equal – at least in the state of California.

If you watched the video of the Cupcakes Take The Cake/Billy’s Bakery cupcake tasting, you’ll see Allison and I testing out some of Billy’s new menu options. One such cupcake is the Vanilla Twinkle cupcake designed by Rebecca Taylor.

As you’ll notice in the picture (we also talk about it during the video), these cupcakes are topped with a peculiar decoration. I was familiar with these tiny silver “sprinkles” as many a Christmas cupcake was decorated during my childhood with this “food” product. However, Allison shared that she had never seen these tiny silver balls before. It was then that someone noted at the table that this particular decorative topping was illegal in the state of California.

The ridiculousness of a cupcake sprinkle being officially banned in a U.S. state was obviously something I would need to write about, hence this week’s column focus.

For those Californians that might be reading this column, here is a little back history from Wikipedia:

"A dragée (pronounced [dræ__e_] dra-ZHAY, from Greek tragêmata "sweets, treats") is a form of confectionery that can be used for decorative or symbolic purposes in addition to consumption...A third form of dragée is a much smaller, pure sugar ball, usually with a metallic coating, made to resemble a ball bearing. These dragées are produced in various sizes, but tend toward slightly larger than a nonpareil and slightly smaller than a small pearl. In fact, one of the more recent developments in the finish of dragées has been the creation of fairly realistic edible pearls, which are used primarily in the decoration of cookies, cakes, and other forms of bakery. Silver dragées, now augmented by ones with gold and copper finishes, have long been used for both wedding and holiday food decoration."


Also according to Wikipedia, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers the metallic-finish dragées to be inedible. However in other countries (including the United Kingdom) they are classed as food items.

Depending on whom you ask, these silver balls go by many names. Americans call them “ dragées,” the Australians call them “cachous,” but the majority of people, regardless of geography, call them by their more common name: “those silver thingies.” They are used commonly on wedding cakes, Christmas cookies, and now, cupcakes.

As mentioned, my mother bought these for use on pretty much every baked good that would require a little pizzazz – cookies, cupcakes, cakes, anything that could legitamately sparkle without being scary or freakish. Coincidentally, I’m writing this week’s column from my parents’ home in Oklahoma City, and when I came up with the idea of writing about dragées this week, I spun by the local supermarket to see if they were still available. Just as I had suspected, there they were, right in the middle of the baking aisle, just like the good old days.

Silver dragées are commonly used on wedding cakes, but you can now find them as fancy accessories on top of cupcakes (Photo courtesy of Country Living)

For me, it’s shocking that Allison has gone her entire life without knowing about dragées. That’s like saying you had never heard of Nutella. However, I didn’t know about Nutella until college, so I’m probably a mutant in the eyes of most people (but c’mon! Chocolate spread on toast?! Get out of town!). But honestly, I can’t remember a Christmas without dragées. They always made an appearance.

Apparently, they do things differently in California. It all started in the early 1990s when Mark Pollock, a Napa lawyer, who began suing any retailer that carried the silver dragées. He even convinced the mother ship of spice companies, McCormick, to discontinue the sale of dragées in California.

The silver dragée was first outlawed in California beginning in the early 1990s

As the years passed, Pollock switched gears to focus on environmental law. That is until Martha Stewart crossed him. Dragées had once again gained popularity after Stewart used them to decorate holiday cookies. And as the dragée manufacturers soon learned, it would be a cold day in hell for Mr. Mark Pollock before Martha Stewart and the baked goods-loving people of California ingested those silvery treats.

According to an article in a San Francisco paper in 2003, Pollock says his motivation wasn’t that someone had been hurt by eating dragées. In fact, he doesn’t know that anyone has been injured by consuming these silvery balls. But, the potential risk that consumers put themselves at, especially children, when eating dragées could be catastrophic because silver is a toxic metal that can build up in the body over time and cause problems.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of people that might have issues with toxic metal poisoning, I think of miners who breathe in dust and fumes for years, not necessarily a kid in Oklahoma who eats a handful of dragées once a year on a Christmas cupcake. Now, I’m no doctor, but Pollock seems a bit off track with this one, and this is coming from an adult that was born and raised in a state that still sells the questionable product. I’m almost 28 years old, and as far as I can tell, I turned out okay, even with the thousands of dragées I’ve ingested over the years.

If anything, the only warning that should be featured on a dragees container is the fact that they may chip your teeth, but I think we can all agree that builds character. Think your kid consumes too much sugar? Pop a few dragées on their next cupcake and see how many sweets they want to eat once they get their first snaggle tooth. If anything, you’ll learn that cupcake decorations can teach your kids about moderation (i.e. too many dragées mean too many visits to the dentist). I think we can all agree that simplifying this life lesson would be wonderful, and before you know it, teaching good dental hygiene AND the importance of not overdoing it on the sprinkles will be as easy as a cakewalk.



Previous CakeWalk Columns:

Chic cupcakes for any budget - take that recession! (May 29, 2009)
Top me off bartender…err, baker in this case (May 22, 2009)
The importance of a moist cake (May 15, 2009)
The Savory Cupcake Dilemma of 2009 (May 8, 2009)
Will the real buttercream icing please stand up? (May 1, 2009)


Mary Ann is the founder of the New York City chapter of CupcakeCamp NYC, an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and eat cupcakes in an open environment. She is also the founder of Puff and Choux, a blog dedicated to the pastry and dessert arts. You can contact her at mary_ann_porch@hotmail.com with any questions, ideas or just to chit chat. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MaryAPorch.

18 comments:

Little Miss Cupcake said...

Here in Paris, dragees are quite commonplace and you can find them not only in silver but gold and other shiny pastels at many baking stores. It is traditional to give almond dragees (I think they are called Jordan Almonds in the US) at baptisms and weddings and many times the silver dragees are mixed in for decoration.
A tip: if you allow them to sit in your mouth a few minutes before biting down, they start to dissolve and are safe for chewing (lessens your snaggle-tooth risks)!
Interesting article Cakewalk!

amy said...

Amen! I've been wondering if any other Californians are as outraged about this as I am. I think they're incredibly cute as cupcake/cake/cake ball decorations (maybe moreso because they're outlawed!) I recently saw some being sold "illegally" at a local cake supply store, but got so distracted by all the other fun stuff, I walked out without buying any. Later, I tried to buy them from a supplier online, but my order was rejected because I had a CA zip code. The humanity!

Pen Pen said...

We've always used them on baking stuff- I'm in Texas and I see them at the grocery store-not everywhere, but they're not hard to find. They're in the same category as fondant to me--not awesome stuff to eat, but the decorative quality is just as important to baking as the edible quality--and u can eat these, ur just not gonna pop them by themselves like m&ms or anything. I love them and they are so perfect for decorating!
Having a problem with them is like having a problem with a jawbreaker.--Once u know what it is, you know how to eat it!

cindy* said...

i knew that they weren't legal in CA, but if figured it was because of some horrible dragee related death...i'm pretty much never against sparkles on my food.

Mrs. L said...

I grew up in California eating (and loving) the little silver balls. I think it's ridiculous that they can't be sold here. Nor that I can order them to be shipped to me. No, it means having friends bring them to you when they visit from out of state!
I think we need a new lawyer in California to take the cause ofand get them legal in California!

Um yeah, you can tell this is a sore spot with me right? :)

Julie said...

I grew up eating them, too, as a kid in California--luckily, before they were outlawed. They're not sold in Arizona, either, which is where I moved to, though I think I've seen them in professional cake decorating stores.

The Dixon Gang said...

I recently had a lady request the dragees on her wedding cupcakes and I had to explain that they are illegal in CA. I'm heading out of state next weekend and I plan to stock up :)

Jen said...

Thank you for this info! I have always been curious about them. I bought a bottle of white dragees recently, and thought they were edible. Then, someone told they're not! I wasn't sure what to do with them!

Christi said...

I learned about dragees when I recently tried to locate them for some shower cupcakes I made. I ordered them on eBay.

Oh, and I tried Nutella for the first time at Pepperoni Grill... heh Now it's one of my favorite frostings.

Lara Starr said...

I've got a secret stash of dragees from before prohibition - I use them very sparingly on wedding cakes and other special occasion treats, like these:

http://cakestarr.blogspot.com/2009/05/love-loss-and-what-i-baked-only.html


You can't even order them online - companies won't ship to California.

So sad, I love the shiney little guys....

karen said...

AARRRRGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! don't even get me started on thisss! i am SO pissed that they're outlawed here in cali. i feel so deprived! first there's no hobby lobby in San diego, then no dragees. it's a hard price to pay to live in cali :'(

megan said...

I was very disappointed when I realized they were illegal. I had remember using them as a kid.

I actually ordered a variety of dragees to be sent to my friend in Pennsylvania so she could bring them to me when she visited.

Easy French Food said...

Hmm. All this makes me wonder how they are made? Could this be a home baker challenge - create silver dragees in your kitchen. That'd stump the lawyer. French dragees many times contain an almond in the center and to make one is a surprisingly elaborate process with a long tradition behind it. Cheers.

modwife said...

I remember trying to eat these as a kid. I think I almost chipped a tooth multiple times. While they can be used as nice-looking decoration, I think they aren't the safest/most edible choice.

Kristy Kiernan said...

Reviving this post as I'm making Christmas cookies again after a long (4 year) break due to selfish family members dying around the holidays and ruining them for everyone--er--anyway...now I can't find them anywhere in Naples, Florida! How, I ask you, HOW am I supposed to make snowflake sugar cookies without silver thingies?! And they're not even officially outlawed here!

Giovanni said...

Your article states as a fact that silver is a toxic metal. That's not true. Like gold it is considered non-toxic. Alum, Mercury (very toxic) are. Silver does accumulate in your body, though, but it is harmless. The worse that can happen if you ingest a whole bunch of silver is that you will turn a bluish hue, but otherwise be healthy. However, you'd have to eat silver everyday for a long time for that to happen. Anyway, silver is a non-toxic metal.

My other comment is that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone and is not an authoritative source. :)

charles gallagher said...

Mm..To be fair, that metal in vaccines is ethylmercury. Unlike methylmercury and silver, ethylmercury doesn't bioaccumulate. apples and oranges and all that.

Anyway I agree its rather ridiculous! I have to get them shipped from new york. I have many many many of them and I love them so~ They have a warning label "Only For Decoration" Which for some reason seems to just encourage me to eat more. LIFE ON THE EDGE, baby!

...Im really, really bored today. Also Dragees FTW!

Gav Man said...

I had an allergic reaction to these after a birthday party and nearly lost an eye due to puffing and swelling. I couldn't believe it but the doctor did and said he has seen it before. California is wise to ban them.