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Christmas time is always accompanied by delicious sweets. Of these, one of the most popular is nougat, Italian torrone, a sweet and deceivingly simple treat: behind the few ingredients it contains, lies an ancient recipe that lends itself to countless variations and carefully guarded secrets. Yet, as we shall soon see, this is science placed at the service of the palate.
The origin of nougat is somewhat nebulous even though there are two theories which are considered to be equally valid. Some claim that it comes from the Middle East, while others believe it dates back to Roman times. In the latter case, it would seem to have appeared during the second war between the Samnites and the Roman Republic, towards 326 B.C. The Romans, in fact, overcome by the Samnites, were taken prisoner, to demonstrate the supremacy of the victors. So, the Roman soldiers decided to starve themselves to death but were made to desist by their jailors who offered them this sweet delicacy. The prisoners were unable to resist. Hence, it was given the name of cupedia, “thing of desire”: this was the earliest form of nougat.
Today, nougat is recognized as being a close relative of marshmallows, soft sweets and marzipan: like them, it contains a considerable amount of sugar, to which syrup and eggs are added. Then there is space for an endless variety of flavourings and variations: honey, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, chocolate and whatever else you fancy. Christmas time, however, is the season in which all traditions come to the fore so, today, along with the recipe for traditional nougat we are also going to learn some scientific principles that will afford us a lot of satisfaction. With regard to the ingredients, you will need three teacups of sugar, one cup of honey, 4 egg whites, one cup of well roasted almonds and half a cup of icing sugar. Finally, some sheets of rice paper for the base.
How to make nougat
Now that we are ready to make our nougat, let’s start from a curious assumption: the really scientific aspect of this sweet lies in the egg it contains, not the sugar. In actual fact, nougat is a “reinforced” version of meringue, in which the egg white proteins give us this unusual consistency. The preparation of nougat, therefore, takes place in two phases. First of all, we heat the honey and sugar in a bowl placed in water (bain-marie) until the latter is completely dissolved. While the sugar is melting, we can get on with beating the egg whites until they are stiff, before gently adding the icing sugar.
Have you done? Well, now let’s wait for the sugar mixture to reach a temperature of 158°C, remove from the heat and let it fall to 145 °C (a couple of minutes will do the trick) and, at this point, we can pour it slowly onto the beaten egg whites, while stirring gently. Better still, if we use a food processor set at a low speed. The mixture will change colour and start to thicken as the sugar gradually cools. After three or four minutes, we have to add the almonds and stir for the last time before pouring the mixture into one or more moulds, whose inner surface has been previously greased with butter. Then, we cover the mixture with rice paper, wrap in cellophane and leave to rest for one day at room temperature. Finally, the nougat may be removed from the mould.
Now that we are familiar with the perfect nougat recipe, here are a few tips. First of all, the egg whites should be at room temperature to facilitate the action of the egg proteins. It is preferable to choose a good quality sugar, which may also be used to produce the icing sugar with the aid of a food processor set at high speed. By the way: when stirring our mixture, whether manually or in a processor, we must take care to do it VERY gently. And we must closely follow the temperatures indicated in the recipe, with the help of a kitchen thermometer: science requires precision and cooking, as we know perfectly well, is pure science. A sweet, very sweet science, in this case. Happy Christmas!