Edible gifts are my favorite to give — and to get. Among those I like to make around the holidays, candies are at the very top of the list. Most have a longer shelf life than cookies, meaning a few hours spent now and those goodies will still be giftable at the end of the month, when your neighbor invites you for a glass of holiday cheer.
Of all the candies I make, nougat is unexpected and delicious. Like a chewy, dense marshmallow studded with fruit and nuts, and scented with honey, nougat is found in markets throughout Europe, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s sweet and crunchy and tart — and absolutely irresistible. Also, beautiful to look at. There are many ways to package nougat, requiring only a little creativity, and maybe some ribbon.
Nougat also serves another purpose. At the end of all the holiday baking, after a year of granola-making and recipe testing, my pantry is harboring a birds’ nest of small packages — bits of dried cherries, a few apricots, a dried pear (yes, one). There are macadamias, hazelnuts and almonds, pistachios, pecans and walnuts. And nougat does not require a specific mix of fruits and nuts, but the opportunity to mix at will. Go ahead: KonMari the pantry and make a pan of nougat, essentially crossing two things off that excessively long to-do list.
Beyond the fruit and nuts, the recipe calls for only egg whites, sugar and honey. I omitted salt in the accompanying recipe, having included salted pistachios. If your pantry has whole raw nuts, toast them first. If they are unsalted, either salt them once toasted or add ½ teaspoon of kosher or sea salt to the recipe. The honey is the most forward of the flavors, so use that special jar from the farmers market or the one you brought back from vacation all those years ago.
There is one critical step: Do not overbeat the egg whites. If, once they’ve become lofty and have peaks, the whites begin to separate and liquid appears at the bottom of the bowl, you’ve gone too far. Sorry to say, but this is utterly irredeemable. Start again. It’s only three eggs and not worth the gritty candy that results.
Timing it all — heating sugar syrup and honey to critical temperatures, and then getting the egg whites just so — should not cause anxiety. Be deliberate. Get everything set up, including the egg whites in the mixing bowl. Start by heating the sugar syrup, which will take the longest to reach temperature (about 20 minutes.) Once it’s nearly there, start the heat under the honey. It should come to temperature in about 10 minutes. When either one reaches the goal temperature, remove the pan from the heat. Only when both sweeteners are at temperature is it time to start whipping the egg whites. When they are fluffy and have peaks that tip over when the beater is lifted, check the temperature of the syrups. They may have slightly reduced, and if so, reheat until they’ve regained the goal.
Pour the syrup and honey into the running mixer, one after the other, steadily and slowly. Initially, because of the tawny shade of the honey, the nougat will be beige, but as the mixer adds air it will change to snowy white — and will end up looking so appealing with red cranberries and green pistachios.
The last bit of advice I have for you: Making candy makes a terrible sticky mess, but it’s easy to clean. Simply fill the pots with water, add any tools that will fit, and bring the water to a boil. Pour the boiling water over anything sticky still sitting in the sink. If candy is still stuck on, pour more boiling water over whatever hasn’t come clean. It just takes time and a lot of hot water to get past it.
When the nougat has cooled and firmed up, portion it for gifting. There are many ways to present nougat. Wrap 2-by-5-inch slabs in parchment, tying it up with twine or a ribbon, or wrap 1-inch squares in individual candy wrappers. Any way you slice it, this is delicious gifting. Wishing you all a very happy season of joy. Bring It!
Barrow is a Washington cookbook author. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Holiday Honey Nougat
100 servings (makes about 100 candies)
Holiday gift-giving just got fancy. Honey nougat is a bright white, chewy, fruity treat with electric green pistachios and red dried cranberries studded through the marshmallowy candy. Nougat is often gifted in slabs, and gets wrapped in parchment or edible paper, ready to be cut into serving pieces. Or portion out individual nougat squares in candy wrappers or wax paper for single-serving goodies.
NOTES: Because honey is the primary flavor, choose one with a well-defined profile, like chestnut or orange blossom. Dark honeys, like buckwheat, are delicious but may darken the snowy white of the candy.
MAKE AHEAD: The nougat will stay fresh for 1 month.
1 tablespoon (14 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups (600 grams) granulated sugar
½ cup (120 milliliters) water
1 cup (340 grams) honey, see NOTES
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 cups (200 grams) roasted, salted pistachios
1 cup (120 grams) dried cranberries
1 cup (120 grams) dried tart cherries
Butter 2 pieces of parchment paper. Place one on a large, rimmed baking sheet, butter-side up, and set the other aside.
In a deep, heavy 3-quart or larger saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a brisk boil. Brush down the sides of the pan with a clean pastry brush dipped in cold water. This helps deter crystals from forming, which will make the candy grainy.
Once the sugar has dissolved and the syrup has reached a boil, clip on a candy thermometer. Without stirring, continue heating the sugar syrup to 298 degrees. This will take about 20 minutes. To avoid hot spots on the bottom of the pot, which burn the sugar, keep rotating the pan, moving it around the heat. The goal is a clear, hot syrup with no burned or caramel flavor to ensure the nougat remains a dazzling, snowy white.
In another 3-quart or larger, heavy saucepan over medium-high to high heat, bring the honey to 258 degrees — it should take about 15 minutes. It will rise up when it boils, so be watchful, pulling the pan from the heat if it looks like it might overflow.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed. When the egg whites get frothy, increase the speed to high. Beat until the egg whites form stiff, shiny and moist peaks that flop over when the beaters are lifted. Overbeaten whites are watery and lumpy. If the egg whites get to that stage, there is no going back and it’s necessary to start again with new whites.
Reduce the speed of the mixer to medium-low and slowly stream in the sugar syrup, followed by the honey. Increase the speed to high and whip for 15 to 18 minutes, until the outside of the bowl feels almost cool to the touch.
Now, work to complete the nougat quickly before it firms up and gets stiff. Remove the whisk attachment and add the fruit and nuts to the nougat, folding with a stiff wooden paddle or a silicone spatula sprayed with nonstick spray. Stir and fold until the fruit and nuts are incorporated — you will need a lot of strength and persistence.
Scrape the nougat onto the buttered parchment. Place the second paper on top, butter-side down, then press out the nougat with a rolling pin and a lot of elbow grease. The final size should be about 8 by 12 inches and about 1½ inches thick.
It takes a few hours for the nougat to firm up enough to cut into portions. Use a warmed, long slicing knife to cut 2-inch-thick bricks. The bricks may be wrapped and tied with string or ribbon and given as a gift. Alternatively, slice across the bricks for bite-size pieces. Wrap individual nougat portions in wax paper or candy wrappers.
There will be a pile of sticky dishes when this is over. Fill the pots you’ve used with the tools and bowls and anything else that’s covered in nougat. Bring the water to a boil and the nougat will melt away. Pour the boiling water into the mixer bowl to clean. Repeat, if needed.
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