Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Three ingredients and an age-old Sardinian recipe for a sugarless, simple nougat.
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Anyone who has tried making nougat -- torrone, in Italian -- at home with the sugar syrup method will know how nerve-wracking it can be: Waiting for that decisive moment, that exact degree that will render the torrone a failure or a success, soft or hard, set or a flop. Surely the thermometer makes things more precise -- and when dealing with the chemistry of syrups, candy and meringue, precision is a must for securing success. You'd think.
But when researching traditional recipes for torrone in Italian, such as Ada Boni's 1921 cookbook, The Talisman, there are no indications of temperature, thermometers, or the dangers of proceeding without one -- just old fashioned instructions for stirring for hours and perhaps testing for doneness with a drop of the molten candy in a glass of water. Torrone dates back to at least Ancient Rome -- surely liquid glucose, candy thermometers and cocoa butter are unnecessary modern additions.
Torrone has a long tradition in various regions all over Italy, each done a little differently. The festive treat is a favorite, taken to friends' homes and shared with an espresso as a sweet snack or with dessert wine at the end of a meal. The one from Cremona, also known as torrone classico, is brittle and hard, broken off in chunks to eat. Abruzzo's Aquila produces a chocolate torrone. And Benevento's torrone is probably the oldest in Italy. But Sardinian torrone, a soft nougat with an ivory hue, is unique because, in its most elemental form, it's made with just three ingredients: egg whites, almonds, and honey.
No liquid glucose, corn syrup, powders, butter, or cocoa butter. No watching of thermometers, no scalding syrup or defining moments. Just a gentle heat and slow, continuous stirring. It's a simple, even relaxing recipe. 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. There are a few simple variations that you can make: A small portion of pistachio, pine nuts or hazelnuts, perhaps, as long as you keep the proportions. It's traditional to use peeled almonds, but I like the contrast of the skins on -- either way, an even toasting of the nuts is a must. If you want to add some further aromatics to the batch, try some vanilla or freshly grated citrus peel.
Typically, the torrone is set between special wafers known as ostia in Italian; use them if you can find them, as they hold the torrone together beautifully and are a nice way to gift it. They also help avoid getting sticky fingers. If you can't get these easily, line your pan with parchment.