Ordering coffee in Italy (un cafe’) means ordering an espresso and for most Italians definitely means adding sugar (zucchero), usually a lot of it, into the cup. When sweetening your coffee in Italy, you may be confused by the labeling on your packet of sugar and the selection and variety of sugar on the shelves at the Coop.
With your coffee you will see packets of zucchero di canna a much darker sugar than the white (refined) or granulated sugar we typically use as an every-day table sugar here in the States. Zucchero di canna, literally translated as cane sugar, is made from the sugar cane rather than from the sugar beet. It is partially refined and darker in color due to the presence of residual molasses.
In recipes for desserts and sweets Italians (as well as other EU countries) use a specific type of sugar called caster sugar. Caster or castor sugar is a white, granulated sugar with very fine crystals whose texture lends itself to baking because it dissolves well in cake batters, confections, meringue mixtures and such making them softer and lighter. Also called Baker’s sugar or Bartender’s sugar, it is favored by mixologists to make simple syrups used in cocktails and bar drinks.
If the recipe calls for light brown sugar, the Italian substitution is demerara sugar, (zucchero grezzro di cana). If the recipe calls for dark brown sugar that would be muscavado. Both are less refined so naturally have molasses in them. Zucchero al velo (a light ‘veil’ of sugar) is powdered sugar. In Italy it often is flavored and labeled vaniglato which means vanilla has been added to it.
There are also unrefined sugars, which in Italian are labeled as zuccheri integrali. The adjective integrale tends to be used for everything that is not refined or processed, as in flours, bread, pasta, rice which in English would be called wholegrain or in this case wholecane. This type of sugar is made from the evaporation of sugar cane juice and the crystallization of this juice. Unlike regular brown sugar it is not refined, centrifuged or filtered. In Italy it can be found in artisan and specialty food shops and is called Panela.