This sticky, brittle made from almonds in hard caramel is a Sicilian specialty, symbolic of all holidays, fairs, and festivals, from Carnival to Christmas. But it's also found all year round over the whole country, most often at street fairs—where hefty blocks wrapped in cellophane are sold from stalls bearing all sorts of traditional candies and treats like marzipan fruit and cookies. In Sicily, particularly in the Noto Valley, you'll find it in pastry shops and cafés during any month of the year.
It is an extremely simple recipe, just be aware there are a few key points when you need to be paying attention—otherwise you can easily end up with a disaster.
First: Keep your eye on sugar when it's on the stove. The sugar gets to a point where it changes character and color very quickly. One minute, it's a pile of sugar melting very slowly; the second you turn your back, it's a bitter black mess. You want to catch it when it has just finished melting into a syrup the color of dark amber but not too much darker. (What does dark amber look like? This post has more details.) You're aiming for a pleasantly bitter flavor like the top of a crème brûlée, so keep an eagle eye on the pot.
Second: You will be very, very tempted to touch the sugar as you're waiting for it to melt. Resist. Stirring or fiddling with the sugar as it's melting can introduce air and cause crystallization. As soon as the sugar goes into the pot, do not touch it! Just watch it until it melts into a syrup, or give the pot a very gentle shake once the sugar starts to melt. Oh, and don't use plastic to stir the almonds into the syrup—it melts (spoken from experience). Go with a wooden spoon to be sure.
Third: Do not let yourself get burnt by caramel. It's a kitchen accident you do not want to experience.
Fourth and final-most point: As soon as the nuts go into the caramel and the whole thing begins to cool down, the mixture will be begin to harden quickly and become difficult to work with, so have everything prepared beforehand. —Emiko
Grease a marble slab or piece of parchment paper with olive oil (marble is ideal, as it's heavy and won't move. Parchment, on the other hand, tends to slide—pull yourself a generous-sized piece and dampen the flat surface, such as kitchen counter, with a wet hand before placing the parchment down; this will help keep it in place).
Place the sugar in a wide, flat skillet in an even layer and turn the heat on low. Watch it carefully but don't touch it or stir it. As soon as it starts to melt, you can help it along with a gentle shake of the pan here and there, paying close attention that it doesn't become too dark (which means it will taste too bitter). It should be a medium or dark amber color, like maple syrup or a little darker, but it shouldn't go dark enough that it begins to look black!
When it begins to melt and you can see the caramel forming around the edges, you can give it a gentle stir with a wooden spoon to help it along. As soon as it has liquified completely and it is dark amber in color, tip in the almonds. The almonds will cool down the caramel and make it harder to work with (smaller nuts such as pine nuts or seeds such as sesame seeds are decidedly easier to work with), but don't lose focus! Keep it over the low heat and mix to combine until all the almonds are coated, then tip it out onto your prepared surface.
Now work quickly. I find the easiest way to flatten the top and reach the desired height (it should be the thickness of about 1/2 inch) is to place another oiled sheet of parchment face down on the top of the almond mixture and use a rolling pin to roll it to the right height. When doing this with smaller nuts, it's easy enough just to use the pressure in your hands (dampened with water) or a lemon half to push it out to the right size and height. If using the parchment and rolling pin, once you have reached the desired height, you can now rub the lemon half over the surface to add shine and a touch of flavor and to even out the brittle along the way. Let cool slightly. While the brittle is still warm, cut into pieces to serve (I find a large, heavy kitchen knife to be the best for this task). I like large bars for giving away as gifts, or small squares for serving with coffee at the end of a meal.
This makes a great edible gift: Wrap pieces individually in cellophane or parchment paper and tie with string. Keep any leftovers in an airtight container (preferably separated in layers with parchment paper to avoid sticking) and store in a cool, dark, dry place. Note that if you live in a warm, humid climate you might find this torrone is always a little bit sticky—nothing wrong with this (licking fingers is always a good thing if you ask me).
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.