Back when I was a pastry student and intern, one of the greatest thrills of the experience was demystifying the process of making sweets that I'd previously only enjoyed from packages or specialty stores. This is precisely why I loved learning candy techniques; making ribbon candy, enrobing chocolate, filling bonbons with flowing liquid caramel—suddenly, I could do all these magical things, just like Willy Wonka!
I was especially excited when I learned to properly make nougat candy, especially the Torrone that my Grammy snuck into our pockets each Christmas. Her store-bought, bite-sized version came wrapped in silver foil tucked inside tiny adorable blue boxes. The candy itself was pillowy and just a little chewy, like a very dense marshmallow, flavored intensely with honey and studded with almonds, as is the Italian tradition. My cousins and I were crazy for the stuff back in the day, and we still are now.
Torrone is made by whisking a French meringue with a very hot syrup made from honey, sugar, and (sometimes) other invert sugars like glucose or corn syrup. The nougat is whipped to aerate the mixture, creating a magical, pillowy texture from something that would otherwise be a hardened, tooth-cracking block. Once it's cooled a bit, the toasted nuts, still warm from the oven, get folded into the nougat by hand. Then it's kneaded a bit on the countertop with a hefty amount of starch to keep it from sticking (and stick it will, to anything left unprotected), and pressed between layers of edible rice paper to set overnight before cutting.
It's not hard to see why homemade torrone has a reputation for causing cooks pain. The syrup must be brought to a very hot 310°F degrees (hard crack stage) in order for the nougat to set up properly and the cooking process that takes time and vigilance. The cook must decide just when to whip the egg whites so they are at soft peak stage by the time the sugar is ready to be poured in, which can be a nerve-wracking guessing game. Also, the nougat is ultra-sticky, which makes handling it troublesome, as it will adhere to anything it touches. Folding in the nuts, kneading on the countertop, and shaping in the pan can all devolve into a sticky failure if the nougat is mishandled.
Click through the slideshow to learn tips and tricks about timing, temperatures, and how to avoid creating a sticky web as you work. With some knowledge and patience, from the very first step through the cutting, you can make perfect torrone at home. You can also make a lot of people happy (these make great party treats for New Year's Eve!)
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthalhas logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evillagekitchen.