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The sugar Easter egg with its springtime scene inside is a piece of confectionery art with many names: panorama, panoramic, scenic, peek-a-boo and peep-through.

It also has a mysterious past — no one knows how the tradition came about. Many people who have received a peep-through egg prize it as a special memento. Frequently, these eggs become cherished keepsakes displayed in homes every Easter. Driven by nostalgia, many search for more panoramic eggs to collect or even to try to make the confections themselves.

One woman for whom the peek-a-boo egg has a special place in the memories is Dorothy Arata of Napa, although she does not have even one in her thoroughly Easter-decorated home. Her deep fondness for the panorama egg is rooted in her memory of making them with her late sister, Lorna, many years ago.

Arata recalled, “My sister was always thinking up great things for us to do. Back then we were having fun doing whatever project together. She was just such a fun person to be with and around as she did a lot of fun things like the sugar Easter eggs. Besides, we worked really well together.”

She continued, “It has been at least 45 years ago when we made the sugar Easter eggs. And we did it only once.”

This wasn’t because it was too difficult or unpleasant, Arata added. “As with many of our fun projects, Lorna came up to Napa from Walnut Creek for the weekend. I remember we had a great time making those eggs and we made tons of them. I don’t remember exactly what we did with them other than giving them as gifts to family and some friends. But I don’t have any of them around now.”

Although Arata has no souvenirs of that panoramic egg project, she remembers the process of making them.

“I can recall the sugar-water mixture for making the eggs was not very wet, actually it was pretty dry. It looked and felt like the sand on the beach you’d use to build sand-castles.”

The next step was putting the wet sugar into the molds, both the top and bottom halves. “But we patted it in like a pie crust and worked it to an even thickness instead of filling the molds entirely with the wet sugar like some recipes call for,” Arata said. “Then we inverted them onto a piece of cardboard so they could dry, which took awhile.”

“One step I clearly remember is doing the toothpick thing.” Arata explained. “Using a toothpick, you’d slowly and carefully remove a little bit of the sugar at a time to create the opening people would look through to see the scene inside.”

She said, “Decorating the inside was the really fun and creative part of making the eggs. We used coconut dyed green for the grass and added little chenille chicks or bunnies and little candies to create the scene. To keep everything is place, we glued them in with royal frosting. The we glued the top half of the egg to the bottom half with the frosting. The seam was covered up with some fancy frosting piping.”

One advantage, Arata noted, was “if you made a mistake with the frosting whether inside or out, you simply wiped it off.”

Her recipe included applying a liquid glue and “diamond dust,” glitter, to the egg exteriors. She said, “I’m sure we did that because we followed the recipe exactly as written.”

Arata added, “They came out very nice and cute. And they were pretty easy to make. I’d say ‘Yes, try it!’ to anyone thinking about making sugar Easter eggs. In fact, make it an activity to do with family or friends because it’s always more fun with a group of people.”

A history of Panorama eggs

At one time, the sugar Easter egg was so popular it was woven into the cultural fabric of 19th and 20th century America including literature of that era. One example is the 1910 short story “The Peep-Through Easter Egg” by Venita Seibert and Benda T. Wladyslaw. It tells the charming tale of a little girl named Velleda and the fate of her prized sugar egg.

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More contemporary writings, articles in particular, the writers have pondered not only why these confections have lost their popularity but also the greater question of the origin of the sugar Easter egg. Most of the writers admit to only having the theory that the bejeweled egg-shaped masterpieces of Peter Carl Faberge’ could be the inspiration for the sugary version. Or, it may be the Victorians applied their taste for the exuberant upon the mundane practice of molding sugar. But there is no conclusive evidence to substantiate or disprove these theories. Or is there?

By delving into the history of sugar itself, coupled with some notations regarding its use to create confections and edible decorations, offer possible answers to the question of the origins of the peep-through egg. This information also seems to indicate the panoramic egg pre-dates Faberge’ and the Victorians.

According to a brief Internet search, use of sugar molds began in the medieval times and with the beginning of the sugar cane trade. It continued into the 19th century. Sugar was sold solely in the form of cones or loaves until the process of manufacturing “granulated,” or “grained,” sugar was developed in the 1820s.

Also, two publications — a history book and a cookbook — provide some additional information that seems to indicate an early origin for the peek-a-boo egg. In “The Italian Confectioner, or Complete Economy of Deserts” by G.A. Jarrin in 1827, the author included the instructions on how-to make rock-sugar eggs and “grained” sugar eggs using molds to create them. While different than the panorama egg, these 1827 confections are possibly its predecessors.

In another book, “Sugar Plums & Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets,” 2004, the author Laura Mason wrote about “Egg Comfits” that were popular Easter exchange gifts in 1820s London, England. They were made by placing thinly rolled out sugar paste into egg-shaped, two-part molds. After they had dried and hardened, the two halves were joined together with a small rope of more sugar paste.

One final hint at how long ago sugar has been used as a means to create culinary art, and the possible time of origin for the sugar Easter egg, is an Internet entry regarding spun sugar. Dating to the medieval times, chefs used forks to transform molten sugar into fanciful creations, such as flowers, castles, dragons and mythical creatures like the Easter Bunny.

Regardless of its origin, nostalgia may be rescuing the peek-a-boo egg from obscurity. According to the staff at Shackford’s Kitchen Shop on Main Street in Napa, it seems fond memories of grandma’s sugar Easter eggs have inspired a renewed interest in how-to make these confections. Apparently, women in their 30s and 40s want their children to also know the joy of peeping upon the special scene inside these unique Easter confections and keepsakes.