Introduction: Cherry Almond Torrone (Italian Nougat)
I decided I would make torrone, just like all the Italian candy-makers sell to the sugar-toothed tourists. It turns out it's not actually that sugary, it is delicious and amazing, and it's also pretty darn easy to make! This is definitely going in my repertoire.
It is essentially an Italian meringue that you mix some tasty fillings into. The meringue makes it light and fluffy and malleable, while the fillings give it some heft and body and broaden the texture. Italian meringue is made by pouring a hot sugar syrup into whipped egg whites while stirring to both cook the eggs and preserve the fluffy texture. For this attempt, I used dried cherries and toasted almonds, which sound to me like they would be pretty typically Italian.
2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup water
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped
1/2 cup almonds, whole
Notes on Ingredients:
- The amount of egg whites is an estimation, and more or less will change the texture of the end product. I actually used 3-4 semi-dried egg whites that had been in a bowl from the week before, when I used the yolks. This is fine, and they worked great. The end product is a little less stretchy than I expected, and I think it's because of too many egg whites for the batch size. Two whites is a better ratio.
- I would recommend that you try it once with the amounts given and once with about double the filling. Mine are not chock-full of nuts and bits, which is what I pictured, but they are excellent just the same, and having less bits gives a good idea of the type of meringue you are making.
Step 1: Blanche and Roast the Almonds, Chop the Almonds and Cherries
Blanching is a quick boiling to make the skins easy to remove. This is not strictly necessary, but helps to tell when you are done roasting them, and avoid tarnishing the flavor by burning the skins. They also look kinda cool without their skins.
This is fairly quick and easy for a small amount of almonds. Just boil a little bit of water in a small pot. Once it's boiling, throw the almonds in for just a little bit, like just a minute or less. Cool them quickly with some cold water, and get rid of the water. The best method I've found is to squeeze them out of their skins one by one. Just grab one, its skin should be loose, and pinch on one end. The other end should separate and the skin will pull right off.
That's blanching almonds!
Lay the almonds in a single layer in a baking pan. Put them in the oven at 400ºF (200ºC) or broiling for a couple minutes. Keep a close eye on them, it won't take long. Take them out and mix them around so you don't get dark spots from the pan like I did, and take them out when they are a nice golden brown. They should smell pretty nice, too.
Once you're done, chop them up just a little. You want big chunks. Chop the cherries to your liking, I made them into pretty fine bits to disperse the flavor.
Step 2: Start Cooking Your Sugar
Cooking sugar is the basis of candymaking. Being able to dissolve sugar in water with heat and monitoring the temperature will get you far in making all kinds of tasty goodies. Cream of tartar helps to keep the mixture from crystallizing when you don't want it to.
Put the 2 cups sugar and 1/2 tsp cream of tartar in a small pot, and add the 1/2 cup water. Some people will say to use a low heat, but I say medium-high, and I haven't had trouble with that yet. When it gets hot enough, all that sugar will dissolve in the water, and it will become a clear solution. At that point, turn it to medium heat and use a brush or paper towel with water to wash down any sugar crystals on the side of the pot. Clip on a candy thermometer (with the bulb not touching the bottom of the pan) and let it heat. Watch the temperature as you go, you will need to be ready when it reaches 240ºF (115ºC).
Turn to your eggs while the sugar continues to heat.
Step 3: Whip Those Egg Whites!
Take your egg whites and whip 'em! This is best done with a mixer, but can be done by hand. It just takes flicking the wrist, some patience, and some endurance, but you can get stiff peaks. If you are doing this by hand, though, you make need someone to tag-team with for later steps. It will be very tough and even dangerous, and I highly recommend getting a cheapo mixer.
Whip them slowly to stiff peaks. If you can time it so that you reach that point at the same time as the sugar reaches the right temperature, all the better. If not, get those eggs whipped first!
Step 4: Cook the Sugar to 240ºF (115ºC), Then to 290ºF (143ºC)
As you cook the sugar, what you are really doing is boiling off water. As the water content falls, the boiling temperature rises, so the sugar gets hotter. If all the water is gone, you will hit about 310ºF, and you may caramelize your sugar. That's for another project, don't go that high for this. But as a side note, these are high temperatures, and cooking sugar will stick to stuff. Be very careful around this stuff, and move it gently.
For torrone, you have TWO target temperatures. The first is 240ºF (115ºC). When you hit that temperature, grab the pan carefully and with good control. While quickly beating the egg whites, slowly pour ONLY HALF of the syrup into the side of the bowl, where the mixer will grab it. Don't pour it where it will fall on top of the whisk, or you will just spread it on the side of the bowl and that part of the sugar will be essentially lost.
Put the other half of the sugar right back on the stove, and maybe turn the heat up. Your second target temperature is 290ºF (143ºC). When you hit that, take your pot off the stove, put the thermometer aside, and carefully carefully pour the rest of the sugar into the meringue in the same way as before, mixing fast.
Step 5: Keep Mixing, Prep a Pan, and Mix in Fixins.
After all your sugar is added, your meringue should be steaming and hot. You don't have to keep beating it fast, but keep it moving. Quickly butter a baking pan and dust it well with corn starch (corn flour).
To tell when the meringue is done, you are looking for it to thicken and solidify just a little. Take a spoon and grab a little bit (with the mixer off, buddy). Let it cool, and it should hold its shape well and not be sticky to the touch. Once you reach that point, mix in your cherries and almonds, and ready your forearms for some hard scooping!
Scoop the warm mixture into the baking pan. I found that buttering my hands would keep it from sticking for a little bit, and corn starch probably would do well, too.
Press the mixture down into a flattish layer in the pan. It shouldn't stick much with the corn starch. But the whisk, scraper, and bowl will be difficult to get it from without hot water. It washes off easily, but I ate as much as I could before I put it in the sink.
Cover the pan lightly with wax paper, and leave it in a cool dry place overnight. Not the fridge though.
Step 6: Slice It Up and Eat It!
I used a knife, spatula, and pizza roller. Use what you've got. Corn starch and butter will help to prevent sticking. I cut it into long slices, and for now we are just pulling chunks off to eat, like heathens. I may end up covering some in chocolate, but it's awesome all by itself. It's really a one-of-a-kind candy, described by one of our taste-testers as "like eating a cloud," which others concurred with. Really, make this stuff, it's good.
Pack it in wax paper to prevent sticking, and then in other containers. I imagine it's best not to let it sit too long, but I'm not the boss of you, and mine hasn't changed after a couple days.
There you go! Torrone! When you say it, you must roll your R's, and pronounce the final E, so that it sounds like "Toh-dohn-ay" (rhymes with "so" - rhymes with "cone" - rhymes with "say"). Let me know if you make it or have trouble, and please vote in the contests! Graci!