We’ve reached the end of another installment of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas!
I normally aim to finish this all before Christmas Day, but this year a combination of factors (toddler, lack of sufficient daylight for decent pictures, toddler) has pushed me beyond the big day. It has been fun to try a few new techniques, and of course I’m more than a little relieved that I can ease off the baking for a while now that I’m done for this year. Life will also be easier now that I’m not trying to hide tins of cookies and sweets from said toddler. Inevitably, he has taken to tucking into my Christmas baking…
I’m wrapping up this year’s series with another sweet rather than a bake. This is Italian torrone di natale. It includes lots of my favourite things – toasted almonds and hazelnuts, pistachios, honey and candied peel – which means it has a wonderful festive flavour.
If torrone looks familiar, you are right – this is a type of white nougat. Similar honey-and-nut confections (made with or without egg whites) appear across the south of Europe, including Spanish turrón and French nougat de Montélimar.
The flavours vary depending on the region, so I have kept things Italian with candied orange peel and pistachios. I did toy with the idea of adding some glacé cherries, so there would be a red-white-green effect similar to the Italian flag, but I decided not to – I did not want to add more sweetness without it also adding flavour, and I did not have time to get hold of cherries that had a decent flavour for making my torrone.
As with all good Italian sweets, there is a legend about how it came to be. It is reputed to have been created in the northern Italian city of Cremona in 1441, to celebrate the marriage of Francesco Sforza (founder of the Sforza dynasty and later Duke of Milan) and Bianca Maria Visconti. The torrone served at the nuptials was said to have been shaped into the form of the Torrazzo (the city of Cremona’s bell tower) and this is what gave torrone its name. Such is the love for torrone in its home town that Cremona celebrates it every year with (you guessed it) la festa del torrone.
While somewhat romantic (we’ll ignore the 24-year age gap between Francesco and the 16-year old Bianca…), this tale overlooks two little facts. The first written record of torrone in Cremona comes over a hundred years later, in 1543. And second, the name is more likely to have a Latin origin from the word torrere (to toast), referencing the nuts used in making this confection.
I’ve always imagined that nougat-style sweets are really hard to make. However, making this torrone was surprisingly easy. You just have to get everything prepared before you start. This is not my natural state of affairs, as I often just get going, and grab things from the store cupboard as needed (and on occasions, find I have run out of what I need). But for this recipe, you do need to prepare all the ingredients properly.
Oh, and have the right equipment! Making torrone will be much easier if you have digital scales to precisely measure the ingredients, a sugar thermometer to cook the honey and syrup to the right temperature, and an electric whisk to do all the hard beating for you. Just how this was made hundreds of years ago in a manual world is actually something of a marvel. The Italian confectioners of history must have developed good instincts for when things were done, as well as strong arm muscles!
When it comes to making torrone, you can play around with the flavours as much as you want. Include your favourite nuts, change around the candied peel, and add other dried fruits according to what you like – mango, papaya, sultanas or cherries. If you go very tropical and find yourself with candied pineapple and macadamia nuts, it might be a little far from the original, but I’m sure it will still be delicious.
To make Torrone di Natale (makes around 50 pieces)
• 200g blanched almonds
• 100g skinned hazelnuts
• 50g pistachios
• 220g granulated sugar
• 20g liquid glucose
• 80ml water
• 140g honey (I used 50/50 orange blossom and wildflower)
• 30g egg white
• 20g white caster sugar
• 60g candied orange peel, chopped
• 2 sheets rice paper (A4 size)
1. Rub a piece of greaseproof paper with a little vegetable oil. Use to line a large baking tray. Line again with one sheet of rice paper. Rub some neutral oil onto a rubber spatula.
2. Toast the nuts. Heat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Put the nuts on three trays and toast until fragrant but not dark. Use separate trays as the different nuts can be ready at different times. When all the nuts are ready, turn off the heat, open the door for a moment and let some of the heat out. Put all the nuts into one tray, and put it back in the oven so they stay warm.
3. Make a sugar syrup. Put the 220g granulated sugar, glucose and water into a small pan. Place over a medium heat. As the syrup is warming, put the honey in a separate small saucepan.
4. In the meantime, put the egg white in a bowl. Whisk to soft peaks, then add the caster sugar, and whisk to stiff peaks.
5. Now the fun starts – working with hot syrup!
5a: heat the sugar syrup until it reaches 116°C (240°F), then start to heat the honey.
5b: when the honey reaches 125°C (257°F), pour it to the whisked egg whites in a thin stream, beating all the time. The egg whites will increase in volume and have a beige colour.
5c: now check the sugar syrup. Once it reaches 150°C (302°F), pour it into the whisked egg whites in a thin stream, beating all the time. The mixture will become white, voluminous and thick. Beat well so everything is properly combined.
6. Add the warm nuts from the oven and any candied fruit to the mixture. Mix quickly with a wooden spoon, then transfer to the pan lined with rice paper.
7. Flatten the mixture with the prepared oiled spatula – it will be very sticky, so do the best you can. Add another layer of rice paper in to of the torrone and use something flat such as a baking tray to press it flat and get an even surface.
8. Leave to cool, then cut into pieces with a very sharp lightly oiled knife. I cut mine into pieces 2 x 4cm.
If storing, you can keep the torrone in a block, or cut into pieces and roll each piece in a 50:50 mixture of cornflour and icing sugar.