Perhaps it was growing up in Michigan, where billowy, tall drifts of snow surrounded us for several months of the year, that began my intense quest for white, glossy, marshmallow-esque sweets.
Perhaps it was the cookbook that shaped so much of my childhood kitchen adventures—the Betty Crocker book, candy and cakes chapters in particular—that at least got me going, and probably more so solidified what would become a lifelong, some might say unnatural, pleasure in whipping egg whites. The book has meant so much to me that I’ve framed a photo of it and hung it on the wall in the kitchen. Because while I do have my own copy, it’s my mom’s, all coming apart and wrapped with a layer of her wallpaper from back in the day, that is the prize.
Every Christmas I got all jazzed to make Betty’s recipe for divinity (so aptly named). I’m pretty certain my mom and I were the only ones in the house who ate the sticky, airy meringue-style, nut-studded confection with complete abandon. But at least I had a friend to share in the fluff-love.
I’m not sure what transpired to take the divinity off of our holiday sweets list, but neither of us made any for years. When I was in culinary school at Tante Marie’s a few years ago, we had a candy-making week that brought me back around to my divinity, but took that a step in another, oh-so-right direction as nougat. Ask my classmates: I jumped up and down when we made the stuff, and was secretly glad my friends out there were all in culinary school too and would have their own batches of nougat, so I wouldn’t have to give any of mine away.
After that, I thought I’d be going after nougat-making at least every holiday season and finding an excuse to make it at Valentine’s Day and Easter too, so much so that I bought a huge stack of rice paper (edible wafer paper the pros use to keep the edges of the nougat from being sticky)—and never used a single sheet. Still, I’ve hauled the wafer paper around in all of my moves thinking every time I move it: I can’t wait to make nougat!
This week, my inspiration for the nougat is not a gorgeous snow drift (while we had those last month, lately a dry spell has been a welcome reprieve before Michigan winter lets it rip). Or a beloved cookbook.
Instead the inspiration is rooted in . . . well . . . doctor’s orders. I know it is completely bizarre and psychiatrist-worthy to turn to sweets even when I’m trying to heal a digestive problem, one that dogged me another unfortunate time years ago (I was in France and made the kind of endless, ill flight home that one wouldn’t wish on the worst sort of enemy), a hereditary issue that also dogged my father (thanks Baba).
But to be told I can’t have ANY fat in my diet for a time, just as I’m revving into the season of utter butter? Just as I’m lining up every cookie and cake recipe to go full-tilt baking (and eating)? Wehhhehhhellll.
Fine then. But I’m not giving up everything. I’m not doing it. I may not be able to have my glass of wine and plate of rich holiday fare, but I will find a way to have my sweet.
Enter nougat, my darling white chew. You’ve come to my rescue. You I love to make, and you I can eat. No fat (other than a nut here and there; I’m making batches without, too). No problem. And don’t get me wrong: you’re not a consolation prize, nougat. You’re just…divine.
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 2 cups shelled pistachios
- 2 cups dried cherries
- 2 egg whites, room temperature
- Pinch of salt
- 1⅔ cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
- ½ cup honey (I prefer creamed raw honey for its flavor)
- 2 tablespoons water
- Few drops rose water (optional)
- Heat the oven to 200°F. Line the bottom of an 8- or 9-inch square pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of the paper by a couple of inches on two sides to form a sling that will assist in removing the candy from the pan. Very lightly brush the parchment and all sides of the pan with a teaspoon or so of the oil.
- In a small bowl, whisk the confectioners sugar and cornstarch. Sift half of the mixture over the bottom of the prepared pan.
- Place the pistachios on a sheet pan in the oven and keep them warm there until you’re ready to mix them into the nougat. If the dried cherries are sticking together in clumps, separate them into individual cherries.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until soft but distinct, nearly stiff, peaks form. Add the tablespoon of sugar and whip for a few seconds.
- In a heavy medium saucepan, bring all but 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the honey, and water to a boil. Clip a candy thermometer on the side and watch closely as the syrup boils, until it reaches 253°F (this only takes a few minutes). Remove the thermometer and start whipping the egg whites again.
- Slowly pour the syrup into the egg whites in a thin stream, beating at high speed. Continue beating at high speed for about 12 minutes, or until the mixture has tripled in volume and has cooled slightly (it will still be quite warm).
- Add a few drops of rose water, if using (off of a spoon, not directly from the bottle, to avoid pouring in too much) and beat that into the mixture.
- Brush a rubber spatula with oil and use that to stir the warm pistachios and dried cherries into the stiff nougat. Scrape the nougat into the prepared pan. Coat your hands with oil and press the nougat into the pan, flattening the top evenly. Sift the remaining confectioners sugar mixture over the top of the nougat.
- Cool the nougat for at least 2 hours, then lift it from the pan using the parchment overhang. Brush the edges of a long, sharp chef’s knife with oil and cut the nougat into strips about 1½ inches wide, then into pieces about 3 inches long, brushing the knife with oil before every cut.
- Store the nougat in an airtight container or on a platter covered with plastic wrap.