Sweet, sweet sugar: delicious pain-killer

Brace your teeth (figuratively, not orthodontically), for these are white chocolate mud cupcakes with honey-roasted soybeans, cocoa nibs, toffee mascarpone icing and crystallised violets.

Their technical name is Jess’s Hannah-Inspired Cupcakes of Amazing Wonderment Forever, as I made them as an adaptation of the customised chocolate bar dear Hannah of wayfaringchocolate.com wrote about here. “The sheer fantasticality of such an orchestra of flavours must surely be pursued and captured in cake format,” I thought to myself while stroking my imaginary goatee. So I sent out my ant army to collect sugar for me grain by grain, I milked some bees, and I laboured with many sugars over many hours to bring you these diabolically sugary little cakes.

And why not? I mean, other than the tooth decay?

Especially since sugar (sucrose, more specifically) is a genuine pain-killer. It acts as an analgesic and it has medical applications for pain management. Sweetness can numb the pain, so it seems.

It seems that sugar’s pain-killing effect results from the actual taste perception of sweetness. The pain reduction only occurs when a person consumes the sugar orally. If the sugar is administered directly into the stomach via a tube — no effect on pain1. So if actually tasting the sugar on your tongue is an essential part of its effect on pain, what does that tell us? We don’t know for sure yet, but at the moment it seems likely that the pleasant sensation of tasting something sweet releases opioids in the brain2, which is the usual way by which your brain decreases your perception of pain after taking a pain-killer. It’s as simple as tasting something that your brain is usually hard-wired to find pretty nice.

You can demonstrate this in the lab by getting people to submerge their arm in unpleasantly cold water for as long as they can — they can tolerate the painful coldness around 50% longer when they have sucrose dissolved in water in their mouth than when they just have plain water in their mouth (so around 75 seconds instead of around 50)3. Nifty! That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t tell us much about what sugar can do for people who don’t have the option of going “ok, yeah, that’s enough now” and walking away from the pain.

Well, sugar has been used for a long time to manage pain in infants. You don’t want to be giving infants and their young little nervous systems hard-hitting pain-killers and their associated side-effects if you can avoid it, and it turns out that giving them some sucrose dissolved in water does help decrease pain after things like minor invasive procedures4, 5. However, sugar’s pain-killing effects in adults are more modest6, possibly due to infants and children having a comparatively stronger liking for sugar (so their brains would get more of an opioid kick out of tasting something sweet), so dosing up on sugar is not of tremendous use for management of severe pain in adults.

So don’t you go and use this as an excuse to inhale a whole sugar-dusted sugar-cake studded with sugar lumps to ease the pain the next time you walk forcefully into the corner of a table. Unless you really, really want to. There are cons to accompany to pros of sugar consumption, so… everything in moderation! (Except high-fructose corn syrup — avoid that like the plague.)

Recipe for Jess’s Hannah-Inspired Cupcakes of Amazing Wonderment Forever, A.K.A. white chocolate mud cupcakes with toffee icing, after the cut.

White chocolate mud cupcakes

This recipe is a variation of this excellent Exclusively Food recipe.

80g dried soybeans
3 tbs honey
300g white chocolate
200g butter
250ml (1 cup) milk
165g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla paste
2 large eggs
100g (2/3 cup) self-raising flour
150g (1 cup) plain flour
1/3 cup cocoa nibs

Soak soybeans overnight in water.

Heat oven to 160°C. Drain the soybeans and pat dry with paper towel or a tea towel. Place the beans in a bowl and add the honey, then stir to coat the beans evenly in honey. Line a tray with baking paper and spread the beans out evenly. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until they are a dark gold. Remove from the oven and allow to cool while you proceed with the cake.

Put white chocolate, butter, milk and caster sugar in a saucepan and melt over very low heat until smooth and liquid. Allow to cool for 30 minutes. While this is cooling, process the soybeans in a food processor until roughly chopped.

Beat eggs and vanilla paste together lightly in a bowl or jug. Add to chocolate mixture and stir until smooth.

Put the flours together in a large bowl and add the chocolate mixture to it, 1 cup at a time, beating well with a wooden spoon to ensure it is smooth. Once all the chocolate mixture has been added in, add the soybeans and stir gently until they are evenly distributed.

Line a cupcake/muffin pan with paper liners and fill them each about halfway with the cake batter. Sprinkle the tops with a dense layer of cocoa nibs, pressing them down gently just a tiny bit to embed them in the cake batter.

Bake for 20-30 minutes (the time depends on the size of your cupcakes, as my cupcake liners were quite large), until the tops (or whatever you can see between the nibs) are golden and a cake tester or skewer inserted into one of the cakes comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

Toffee icing

40g butter
1/2 cup tighly packed brown sugar
3 tbs thickened cream
250g mascarpone

Melt the butter in a saucepan until it bubbles. Add the brown sugar and stir over medium heat until it is dissolved. Add the thickened cream and cook over medium heat, continuously stirring, for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. You have toffee sauce.

Beat the mascarpone and toffee sauce together with an electric mixer or a whisk until smooth. Ice the cooled cakes however pleases you best.

I bought some crystallised violets and ground them into a coarse powder with a mortar and pestle to decorate the cakes. (If you do this, do it right before you intend to serve the cakes, since the violets will kind of melt into the icing and turn blue.) If you can’t get crystallised violets, you can make sugared violets by painting violet flowers with egg white then covering them in caster sugar and allowing them to dry, then you can place the whole flowers on top of the icing for decoration.

Or you can omit the violets completely, as I will in all future recipes in the history of ever, since all violets do is smell of my grandmother because her favourite perfume was April Violets and I haven’t smelled violets in any other context. So, like tomacco or this jam

1. Ramenghi et al. (1999). “Sucrose analgesia”: absorptive mechanism or taste perception? Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal Neonatal edition, 80, F146-F147.
2. Segato et al. (1997). Sucrose ingestion causes opioid analgesia. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 30, 981-984.
3. Eggleston et al. (2010). Adding cocoa to sucrose: the effect on cold pain tolerance. Chemical Senses, 35, 269-277.
4. Blass et al. (1995). Sucrose as an analgesic for newborn infants. Pediatrics, 87, 215-218.
5. Harrison (2008). Oral sucrose for pain management in infants: myths and misconceptions. Journal of Neonatal Nursing, 14, 39-46.
6. Anseloni et al. (2002). Age-dependency of analgesia elicited by intraoral sucrose in acute and persistent pain models. Pain, 97, 93-103.

  13 comments for “Sweet, sweet sugar: delicious pain-killer

  1. September 15, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Oh my goodness, as if I really needed another excuse to eat sugar! That’s pretty cool to know, though. Especially if I have little ones one day (in the distant future) 8). Great combination of interesting flavors here. I wish you were closer so I could hop by for a taste hehe.

    • Jess
      September 16, 2010 at 9:50 am

      Yeah it’s definitely a good thing to know when it comes to infants. 24% sucrose is apparently the recommended amount, so 24g sucrose + 76g water and then just give the baby a few millilitres on its tongue. And they’ve done studies to see if this has any impact on dental health, and they found that it doesn’t cause dental caries so it’s pretty safe.

      If only we could send baked goods between countries without customs getting grumpy!

  2. September 16, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Jess, these look fantastic, and so moist. I love the flavour combinations too. White chocolate, soy beans, cocoa nibs, toffee and crystallised violets. You are fantastic!

    • Jess
      September 16, 2010 at 9:57 am

      All credit for the flavour combination to Hannah and her amazing Chocomize bar. I tend to stop at two or three major flavour ingredients but this encouraged me to try more complex combinations. I tried white chocolate + dark chocolate + cocoa nibs + powdered ginger + elderflower syrup last night but the actual baking itself was a bit of a failure (curse you brownies that seemed cooked when I put a cake tester in but then sank horribly when I took you out of the oven! That’s what I get for inventing my own recipes and then not being more careful with figuring out the cooking time). But the flavour combination was pretty good so I’ll be going back to that one, methinks…

  3. September 16, 2010 at 8:49 am

    these are very unique looking cuppy cakes, love it. NO WAY will i be able to find crystalized violets where im at though :) love the simplicity look of your blog btw :)

    • Jess
      September 16, 2010 at 9:59 am

      I only decided to make these cakes when I was at a gourmet food store and saw the violets just sitting there. It was a matter of luck and opportunity; I never would have thought I would have been able to get them unless I bought them online or something. Anyway, IMHO, these cakes are better off without the violets. ;)

  4. September 16, 2010 at 10:31 am

    *claps and laughs with glee for several minutes straight*

    (I’m not kidding. I’m in my PhD office and I just giggled and giggled out loud.)

    I am so overwhelmed by your awesomeness. I should’ve known you’d actually do this, but so often people write “I’ll make [insert treat here] straightaway” on people’s blogs and never do. You’re amazing.

    And I definitely need the sugar to combat the pain of finding out, yesterday, that admin stuff-ups have meant I’m not actually enrolled in my PhD yet. Gah.

    But aside from that… Jess, these really do look amazing. And I’m so chuffed you even used my title. :D

    • Jess
      September 16, 2010 at 10:44 am

      I have the most remarkable ability for follow-through when it comes to cooking! In more critical areas of my life, not so much (“I’ll edit that review article today!”, then three hours of Google Reader later…).

      If these cupcakes weren’t both bulky and delicate, I’d put them in a box and mail them to your uni ASAP, but I don’t think they’d survive the journey, alas. If only Aus Post had some sort of delicate baked goods delivery service. How uncivilised that they do not!

      Grr, admin! Not cool, not cool. Hopefully that doesn’t make any difference to your overall PhD timeline.

      I had to use your title, it was so expressive. All my titles are just descriptive. If I’d invented red velvet cake, I would have probably called it Cocoa & Vanilla Red Cake and then maybe mentioned at some stage that it has a nice texture. I’ll never sway anyone with titles like that. Must remember to devise more exciting/alluring titles for my recipes…

    • September 16, 2010 at 6:26 pm

      Anytime you want a descriptive title, just let me know ;) I’ll keep a record, and then I’ll come visit and demand sugar-compensation for all my work. Good plan, right? I think we can both benefit from this arrangement.

      P.S. I agree on the discussed-below awesomeness of your referencing. Perhaps you could have a chat to my two students who failed to put a single reference/citation in their sociology essays?

  5. September 16, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Jess, you have TOTALLY outdone yourself. First of all. Your post has footnotes. Of scientific articles. You rock.

    We actually just learned about the opioid releasing neurons in class. About how they go from the medulla to synapse on the spinal cord. About how they’re actually constantly active throughout the day and can be activated by serotonergic stimuli. Maybe sugar stimulates serotonin (because sugar makes everyone happy). Which stimulates the opoid-producing neurons? Hmmm. Something to think about.

    Anyway, I LOVE how you tied science into these fantabulastic cupcakes!

    • Jess
      September 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm

      Thank you!

      I love me some footnotes. So many times I’ll be reading a blog (of any sort: cooking, politics, whatever) and someone will write something in particular and I’ll think “You had to get that information from somewhere — WHERE? Tell me! Let me look at the information for myself! I need references!”. My brain is permanently in [citation needed] mode, but I think that’s probably a good thing. :)

      It seems that pharmacological intervention with serotonergic agents has been used for treatment of pain, mainly using reuptake inhibitors with both serotonergic and noradrenergic action. So there could be some sort of connection there. (Although anecdotally, my research participants are probably not exactly the most comfortable they’ve ever been when I give them citalopram and they get nausea. :( ) I’ve also got a few interesting papers about sugar and depression, and given the use of serotonergic agents in treating depression… another link perhaps? I’m definitely going to write a post about those papers at some stage.

      Heh yeah I’m planning to try to make the science at least somewhat relevant to the recipe, which is easy enough when sugar’s involved! Not much research out there on, say, crystallised violets. Although maybe particular compounds in crystallised violets…

  6. September 17, 2010 at 12:55 am

    this looks so delicious!

    have a nice time!

  7. September 17, 2010 at 1:07 am

    These look super & your photos are simply spectacular. Oh how I wish I could sink my teeth into a white chocolate mud cupcake right now!

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