It’s crept up on me this year. Here I was still thinking it’s October, but suddenly it’s December. Time to start preparing gifts and thinking about the Christmas table, though my mind is elsewhere as I’m really trying to plan my baby’s first birthday! I knew having a Christmas baby would make the holidays different and I have this feeling that from now on my Christmasses are always going to creep up on me and the birthday will take pride of place.
So to get in the mood and at the same time prepare some homemade gifts, I’m tackling a recipe that I’ve always wanted to make – torrone, or Italian nougat. A candy that is synonymous with festivity, it’s the perfect thing to take to friends’ homes and share with an espresso as a sweet snack or with dessert wine at the end of a meal.
I do love preparing my own homemade gifts, especially when they are food related and can be prepared in advance. I think my best gifts have been these kind of gifts. One year when I was particularly broke, I managed to create little hampers to give to all our friends and family with things like handmade spiced jams, biscotti, flavoured salts and relishes. It didn’t cost much, but it was all made with love and the baskets looked rich and overflowing. The reaction was overwhelming, everyone loved them. Homemade gifts are so much more personal and I find that everyone loves food, so even those tricky people who you never know what to get are happy. It’s the theme of this month’s Italian Table Talk, a discussion of true Italian cuisine, rituals and traditions, as Giulia prepares some delicious calzoncelli, traditional almond cookies from Melfi in Basilicata, Jasmine makes gelatine and Valeria makes sesame brittle (cubbaita di giuggiulena). You’ll have no shortage of ideas after this!
I may have set my sights a little too high with the torrone, though. I thought it sounded simple enough. I had my new candy thermometer, I had extra help in the kitchen (at one point I needed at least four hands, one set to hold and stir the meringue while the other set poured dangerously bubbling hot sugar syrup into the meringue) and I’d even timed it all to be done while the baby was napping (otherwise I would have then needed six hands!). But the first and second attempts – the first a fig and pistachio number, the second a chocolate and candied orange one – were flops. The torrone hadn’t set. It was a sloppy, floppy, sticky, delicious mess.
So, back to basics it was. When it comes to daunting recipes there’s nothing wrong with a bit of simplifying and going back to look at historic and traditional ways – contrary to what some may think, not all modern ways are the easiest!
I noticed when researching traditional recipes for torrone in Italian, starting with Ada Boni’s 1921 cookbook, The Talisman, there were never any indications of temperature, thermometers and such – just old fashioned instructions for stirring for hours and testing for doneness with a drop of the molten candy in a glass of water. Surely this age old ancient Roman candy could be made without all this fuss.
Then I came across Sardinian torrone. No syrup, no sugar. Just three ingredients stirred together over gentle heat. I’m drawn to it because of its simplicity – as soon as a nougat or torrone recipe asks for glucose, corn syrup, powders, butter or cocoa butter, I’m gone.
Torrone has a long tradition in various regions all over Italy, each done a little differently. The one from Cremona, also known as torrone classico,is probably the most famous. It’s brittle and hard, and has to be chipped off in chunks to be eaten. Abruzzo’s Aquila has chocolate torrone. Buttorrone sardo, which comes from Tonara in central Sardinia, in its most elemental form is made with just egg whites, almonds and honey. It’s a wonderful soft nougat with an ivory hue, speckled with nuts.
There are two main ways to make this traditional Sardinian torrone. The first is to place the honey and unbeaten (or lightly beaten) egg whites in a pan then gently heat while stirring continuously with a wooden spoon for 45 minutes. Nuts are then added and mixed for a further 30 minutes. The second way differs only in that the whites are whisked to peaks first, then added to honey melted in a bain marie. Then stirring, adding nuts, stirring.
It’s a simple, even relaxing recipe. No watching of thermometers, no scalding syrup or defining moments. Just a gentle heat and slow, continuous stirring. Put on some good music, or better yet, have some good company in the kitchen with you so you can share the stirring and you’re halfway there.
The most traditional recipe uses just almonds and Sardinian honey, which is gathered from the Mediterranean scrub that surrounds the island. But a portion of pine nuts wouldn’t go amiss. I used pistachio for a touch of colour. Hazelnuts would also be nice. You can peel your almonds, but I like the contrast of the skins on, either way, an even toasting in the oven of the nuts is a must to bring out the flavour. If you wanted to add some further aromatics to the batch, try some grated fresh orange or lemon peel or a freshly scraped vanilla bean pod. Like all really good things, keep it simple.
Torrone Sardo – Sardinian nougat
Typically, any torrone is set between two special wafers known as ostia in Italian. If you can’t get these easily, line your pan with parchment or baking paper – just remember to peel it off before eating it!
- 500 gr of honey
- 500 gr nuts (e.g. whole almonds)
- 2 egg whites
Prepare a small square or rectangular baking dish with a layer of ostia (traditional wafer) cut to size or two layers of parchment cut to size, one long piece covering the dish vertically, another long piece covering it horizontally, so that the sides of the dish will be covered and you can fold the parchment over the top of the torrone while it is setting.
For the nuts, it’s traditional to use 100% whole peeled almonds, but you could do a mix, substituting a portion of almonds for other nuts or even dried fruit such as figs. Place the nuts on a single layer in a baking tray and toast in oven at 325º F, about 10-15 minutes or until shiny and fragrant. Set aside.
Place honey in a large bowl over a saucepan of water (bain marie) on the lowest heat. Make sure the bowl is not touching the water. Heat honey until it melts, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
In the meantime, whisk egg whites to stiff peaks in a separate bowl. Add the whites to the bowl of honey which is still over the bain marie, stirring with the wooden spoon to incorporate. It should turn into a caramel-coloured cream. Keep cooking, stirring slowly but continuously over gentle heat for 45 minutes. The mixture should thicken and become paler.
A small test should determine that your torrone is at a good stage – a drop of the mixture in a glass of water should solifidy into a soft ball, not dissolve immediately.
Add the nuts to the mixture and continue cooking and stirring for 30 minutes. Pour into your prepared baking tin. Fold over the parchment to cover the top and smooth it down, pressing the torrone gently with your hands. If using the more traditional ostia, place a layer of ostia cut to size on top and press gently but firmly.
Place in a cool place to set for a couple of hours. When set, cut the torrone into thick slices with a sharp, heavy knife (a little olive oil wiped onto the knife helps). Wrap in parchment or cellophane and tie with pretty string or ribbon for the perfect homemade holiday gift.
Keeps very well wrapped in parchment or cellophane and stored somewhere cool.
Part of this article appeared on my Regional Italian Food column over at Food52.