That hat is called piloncillo and it's one of my favourites, not only for its deep caramel flavour, but also because as far as sugar goes, it's as close as you can get to biting down on a stalk of sugarcane itself (a treat I'd occasionally enjoy as a child).
Unlike brown sugar, which usually is refined white sugar stirred together with molasses, piloncillo is the result of boiled down cane sugar juice, much like its Indian cousin, jaggery. Its flavour is complex, layered with fiery ginger, molasses, even rum. Its aroma is intoxicating, begging to be paired with warm spices like cinnamon, ground ginger and cloves.
Like many brown sugars, it can resemble stone in density and hardness, so I suggest microwaving it for about 20 seconds, then chopping it up with your heaviest cleaver.
This bold sugar is a perfect match for springtime's most astringent offering, rhubarb. Every spring, I scour the farmers markets for those crimson stalks whose daring hues beat back winter's grey. I make a big jar of rhubarb compote, assertively laced with fresh ginger, the warm Indian spice mix called garam masala, orange zest and the tiniest dusting of red chili flake. It tops everything from pork chops to my morning yogurt. Little did I know that this brave little compote has been missing a vital component until now: a sugar as pure as spring sunshine with enough fire to subdue rhubarb's sour side.
GINGERY RHUBARB COMPOTE WITH PILONCILLO AND ORANGE
Start to finish: 20 minutes
Piloncillo is usually available wherever your supermarket stocks sweeteners or Latin American ingredients.
2 pounds rhubarb, diced
1 1/2 cups chopped piloncillo
Zest and juice of 1 navel orange
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon garam masala (or pumpkin pie spice)
Pinch of red chili flakes
Hefty pinch kosher salt
In a medium skillet over medium-low, combine all ingredients. Simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the rhubarb breaks down. Taste for seasoning and adjust according to your palate. Cool slightly before serving. Refrigerate leftovers.
Nutrition information per serving: 120 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 per cent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 31 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 26 g sugar; 1 g protein; 35 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Food Network star Aarti Sequeira is the author of "Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul." She blogs at http://www.AartiPaarti.com .