Among the sweets I adore there is in fact a hierarchy of that which captures my imagination, attention, and I’ll say it: love. I reserve the right to revise this statement at any time, especially when confronted with something like chocolate that sends me over the top—but the truth is that white fluff in the form of meringue, marshmallow, nougat, or soft-serve ice cream may well be what sent me off to cooking school to begin with. The more I could master, or just be around, sweet white puffs of beauty, the greater life is.
It started with marshmallow and a Sunday morning ritual when I was very small: paper plate covered with marshmallows, microwaved until they puffed up, then stretched by hand (how artisanal of me) to a silky taffy and eaten up immediately. That last part was key because the microwave zap made for short-lived softness to the marshmallows, which swiftly became crunchy and hard. Still edible, of course. The backdrop to this orchestration was always Davey and Goliath on television, a claymation favorite.
From there I graduated to the stand mixer, making white mountain frosting, then divinity, an apt name for a fluffy white candy studded with nuts. I learned about these among the pages of Betty Crocker that I reviewed regularly. The divinity reminded me of my favorite candies, procured from Quality Dairy on the corner near our house: Snickers, Charleston Chew (vanilla), Brach’s bright white individually wrapped nougats with jelly inclusions.
On par with the pleasures of fluffy candy has always been, for me, white soft-serve ice cream. Not grainy yellow soft-serve, not chocolate/vanilla twist soft-serve. Bright white soft-serve alone has my affection, like that served at the national treasure Tasty Twist in East Lansing. I will turn my nose up at anything less, even if that bright white comes at a cost (this shade of white can be, shall way say unnatural, but I don’t care. It hints at purity nonetheless.). This is the ice cream that eluded me in downtown Chicago, where I’d have given an arm and a leg if I could just hobble over to a Dairy Queen where none existed. It’s the ice cream that, whenever I sing its praises, gives way to my mother remembering how her mother loved soft-serve. Any opportunity to be compared to Alice Elum Abowd, my grandmother and a powerhouse well under 5 feet tall, is one I crave.
My father loved ice cream even more than I do, if that’s possible, and he would eye his kids’ cones and signal a ‘come over here’ with his chin, so he could get a bite. His bites equaled at least a third of the scoop. He must have known he would only get away with one bite, so he made it a good one. When my dad was sick with acute terminal cancer during the month of June twelve years ago, and we needed to get him out of the house for a breath of fresh air, I suggested a drive west on Willow Road to Grand Ledge. The destination was soft-serve ice cream that I thought would go down easy for him. I sat in the back seat with the windows down. Mom drove. We were all quiet. I wanted to freeze time in that moment: the rolling farmland, the cicadas chirping and the hum of the car moving along as steadily as the undeniable hum that told us Dad would be gone soon. We didn’t make it all the way to the ice cream; Dad got tired and wanted to head home. On the way he said that there would be hospice soon, as if to warn me. I knew there would not be hospice, that we would do everything there at home to usher him to heaven, but I just sat in back and rubbed his shoulders while he talked. The idea of the soft-serve ice cream, and the drive to go and get it, offered a respite of softness to the cruel edges of it all.
I promise I have not forgotten that this is a post about fluff. But even fluff wants to demonstrate that it’s more than just a pretty face, that its soft drift of ice cream or puff of meringue, when attached to memory and love, won’t dissolve simply, like the sugar they’re made of. Thank goodness for that.
This soft ice cream is made of a frozen mousse-like mixture of meringue and whipped cream, and it does not require an ice cream maker. I’ve studded mine with caramelized almonds and fresh cherries…but anything goes, especially candied or dried fruits or simple roasted nuts. Nougat glace is typically flavored with honey. I prefer mine with vanilla, but you can omit the vanilla and instead add a tablespoon of honey to the sugar syrup before it comes to a boil. The classic way to serve nougat glace is with a fruit coulis.
For the caramelized nuts (optional; otherwise use the plain roasted nuts):
1 cup sugar
½ cup whole roasted almonds, room temperature
For the mousse:
2 cups whipping cream
5 egg whites, room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
15 cherries, pitted and chopped
For the cherry coulis (optional):
2 cups cherries, pitted and chopped
½ cup water
½ cup sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
Line a 10” loaf pan with plastic wrap both crosswise and lengthwise, leaving a sling overhang.
For the nuts:
In a small heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, melt the sugar, stirring occasionally. Adjust heat lower to avoid burning, which can happen fast, so keep a close eye. Once the sugar is melted and amber, add the nuts and stir, coating the nuts and cooking them for about a minute. Pour onto a silpat or oiled sheet pan, taking great care because this mixture is extremely hot. Cool completely and chop into small pieces.
For the mousse:
Whip the chilled cream to soft peaks. Chill. Clean the bowl of the mixer thoroughly. Add egg whites and whip until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and continue to whip until soft peaks form. Turn off the mixer. In heavy small sauce pan over medium high heat, combine the sugar and water. Heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (232 degrees). Remove from the heat. Turn the mixer back on medium high and slowly pour the syrup into the egg whites. Add the vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool.
Fold the chilled whipped cream, candied almonds, and cherries gently into the meringue. Scrape the nougat into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Freeze for 8 hours.
For the coulis:
In a small heavy saucepan over medium high heat, bring cherries, sugar, water, and lemon juice to a boil. Simmer for 8 minutes, or until the fruit breaks down (there will still be chunks of fruit). Cool slightly and puree the mixture in a blender or processor, then pour through a sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids to release juices. Chill.
To serve the nougat glace, remove from the loaf pan and place on a platter. Run a sharp chef’s knife under hot water and slice 1-inch pieces, rinsing the knife after each cut. Spoon some of the coulis on a dessert plate and top with the nougat glace slice.
Makes 10 servings.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.