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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, ideas or just to chit chat. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MaryAPorch.