Many of my best childhood memories were made in a small kitchen in Ohio, surrounded by my family at the oval-shaped country-kitchen table, making candy at Christmas.
We would make fudge or ‘white divinity fudge’, which is egg whites cooked with sugar. Mom would boil the sugar (dangerous stuff), Sis would help, Joe and I would kinda stand around and ‘look’ helpful, and then Dad would come in and do anything requiring muscle. (Muscle is essential when making candy.)
At culinary school, we made a traditional French Christmas candy, similar to Divinity, called Nougat de Montelimar – a pure white chewy nougat made with lavender honey, sugar, bright green pistachios and toasted almonds. Both recipes require cooking egg whites with hot sugar. The main difference is that nougat is made with honey and sugar cooked to the hard crack stage and formed into a block while Divinity is cooked to a soft ball stage and dropped from a spoon.
“Nougat de Montelimar” is technically the name for the candy that is made in Montelimar, France, and is a traditional Christmas sweet. There are strict guidelines for making Nougat de Montelimar – for a brief history lesson, visit the French confiseur, Arnaud Soubeyran for more details. Or, take a virtual trip to Montelimar via YouTube:
We can make nougat in the “Montelimar” style, though. All we need are whipped egg whites, a lot of cooked honey and sugar, pistachios and blanched, toasted almonds. You can make your nougat your own by adding candied lemon zest, vanilla, and dried fruits. Avoid dried fruits crusted with sugar, though, as those sugar crystals may convert your creamy nougat into gritty nougat.
The trick to success is cooking the sugar properly. Because of Denver’s altitude, we can’t rely on a candy thermometer’s reading for success. The first batch I made seemed to turn out perfectly until a day later when my ‘squares’ of nougat turned into little pillows.
Water typically boils at 212ºF, but not in Denver. At my home, it boiled at 200ºF. Sadly for me, I didn’t conduct that test until after I made my first batch of candy. The cost was my time and another trip to the store for more nuts so I could try again.
According to the Joy of Cooking: “for each increase of 500 feet above sea level, cook candy syrups 1º lower”. So, for example, if a recipe calls for cooking sugar to 234ºF at sea level, and here we are in Denver at an altitude of 5280, then cook to 224ºF. But the best road to success is testing the cooked sugar in ice water. (Visit The Art of Melting Sugar)
It’s easy to test your sugar using a thermometer as a guide. Use a clean metal spoon to drop cooked sugar in a bowl of ice water to confirm whether it is at ‘soft ball’ or the ‘hard crack’ stages as called for the in recipe. At ‘soft ball’, the sugar will come together in a malleable ball while in the ice water. At ‘hard crack’, the sugar will need to be peeled off the test spoon and will definitely crack. Check these physical characteristics against the readout on your thermometer.
This video demonstrates how to test the sugar, and it also now gives you the recipe:
Most nougat recipes call for rice paper (or wafer paper). It’s hard to find, and it isn’t necessary. Substitute rice paper for powdered sugar, and you’ll have more fun in the process. Children can finger “ski” the powdered kitchen alps.
The most difficult part of making nougat is the muscle that is needed in cutting the finished candy into individual squares. In Montelimar, they use power saws. Not quite sure how I’m supposed to do that at home, though. I could have used a strong, let’s say…. 6’2”, 210 lb. muscular boyfriend to cut through that dense candy. But, alas, it was just me; so I used the only power tool I have – girl power – and my sharpest chef’s knife. I have a tender spot on my palm, now, from pushing the knife through; but the divine sweet candy is worth a little pain.
NOUGAT (DE MONTELIMAR STYLE)
Sea level (and altitude) temperatures provided
baking tray with 1” sides
heat resistant pastry brush
heavy duty mixer
copper insert for mixer (optional)
9×9 cake pan (optional)
digital scale (an essential kitchen tool)
170 grams (6 ounces) corn syrup (helps prevent the sugar from recrystallizing)
600 grams (21 ounces) super fine sugar (essential for dissolving sugar crystals quickly)
250 grams/ 9 ounces honey
400 grams (14 ounces) whole blanched almonds (toasted at 275ºF for 15 minutes)
120 grams (4 ¼ ounces) peeled pistachios (toasted at 275ºF for 10 minutes)
½ teaspoon pure vanilla
3 egg whites (room temperature)
MISE EN PLACE
- Have everything measured and all of your tools ready before you begin.
- Premeasure all of your ingredients
- Place the honey in a small saucepan on the stove
- Place the corn syrup and sugar in a tall-sided sauce pan (allow room for the sugar to expand as it boils) on another burner
- Have a bowl of ice water, a metal spoon, and pastry brush ready
- Have the sugar thermometer nearby
- Have the egg whites in the mixer
- Have your mixer fitted with the whisk attachment with the copper bowl insert, if available, and near the stove.
- Have the paddle attachment nearby
- Cut a sheet of parchment paper to fit your baking tray.
- Brush the paper with oil and liberally coat with confectioner’s sugar
- Have a pastry scraper and rolling pin ready
As the honey nears soft ball stage, whisk the egg whites on high speed until stiff wet peaks form. Reduce the speed to low and slowly pour the hot honey down the sides of the mixing bowl. After all the honey has been added, increase the speed of the whisk and beat until the whites thicken (about five minutes).
Meanwhile, melt the corn syrup and sugar over medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine, and cook to completely dissolve the sugar. Cover, and continue to cook over high heat for 3-5 minutes.
Remove the lid, and use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down any sugar crystals that have formed on the side of the pan. (This is an important step – be sure to melt all crystals or they may recrystallize your melted sugar making your candy gritty. Do not stir the sugar beyond this point.)
Insert the candy thermometer and continue to boil the sugar on high heat until it reaches 300ºF (290ºF in Denver, or the hard crack stage). The hotter the sugar, the harder the candy will be when it sets. Some recipes call for 300ºF, some 285ºF.
While the sugar is cooking, replace the whisk with the beater attachment.
Pour the hot sugar (protect your arms and hands) down the sides of the bowls and beat until well blended and thickened. Continue beating for 8-10 minutes to allow the mixture to cool a little and thicken.
Incorporate the nuts, vanilla and any other flavorings. The mixture will be warm but will cool significantly with this addition, so quickly turn it out onto your prepared parchment paper. Dust your hands with powdered sugar to reduce the amount that sticks to you.
Dust the top of the candy with powdered sugar. Use a rolling pin to roll out and shape the mixture and push out air bubbles. Fold the parchment paper over the candy to help shape it into a 1” thick x 5 ½” x 17” rectangle (you can shape it however you wish). I used the sides of the baking sheet to support my rolling pin and ensure an even thickness.
Let sit wrapped in the parchment paper for twelve hours to harden.
Cut into 1” cubes. This requires a sharp knife and some muscle. Dust with powdered sugar as needed. Place in individual gift bags or store in an airtight container.
Patricia Bainter is a blogger and writer for 303magazine. She trained at Le Cordon Bleu London and shares her culinary musings and recipes at her own website ThePatricianPalette.com. Photos by Patricia Bainter.