Oh, the joys of sweet, sticky nougat. Studded with all manner of nuts and glacé or dried fruit, it's as pretty as a stained-glass window, and twice as festive.
There are many types of nougat across the globe known by various names. There's Spanish turrón, which comes in two versions: hard and brittle blocks heavy with whole almonds (Alicante), and a soft form (Jijona) in which the nuts are reduced to a paste and the addition of oil gives a chewier texture. The Italians take pride in their torrone, a traditional Christmas confection hailing from Cremona in Lombardy, which also comes in hard (duro) and soft (morbido) varieties. And, of course, this being Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and many other regions besides have their own version of the sweet confection. And then there's Persian gaz, Greek madolato, Maltese qubbajd and Filipino turrones de casoy. What's common to all of them, including French nougat, is the method of cooking honey and sugar and whisking it with eggwhite to produce this gloriously sticky, snow-white mass.
Nougat isn't difficult to make, but it requires precision and some essential pieces of kitchen kit. You'll need pastry weights or food cans, as well as two 20cm square cake tins that fit inside one another; if you only have one tin, substitute a piece of heavy cardboard cut to fit snugly inside your cake tin and covered in foil. An electric mixer with a whisk attachment and a sugar thermometer are musts, along with a degree of preparedness. It's all about mise en place. Have all your ingredients weighed and ready to go, and your eggwhite on standby in the electric mixer.
Warm your fruit and nuts in the oven
Set your oven as low as it can go, chop your nuts and dried or glacé fruit, spread them on a tray and place them in the oven to warm. Warming the fruits in this manner makes them easier to fold through the nougat mixture – if they're cool, they'll cause the mixture to seize.The combination of fruit and nuts is wide open, but we find the inclusion of a sour fruit such as the cranberries we've used here – or even dried sour cherries – provides a welcome burst that cuts through the sweetness.
A few tricks to lining your tin
Prepare your cake tin by lining it with confectioner's rice paper and oiling or buttering the sides. You can also make life a little easier by lining the tin with a sheet of baking paper before lining the base with rice paper.
If you let the baking paper overhang the sides of the tin, the nougat will be easier to remove from the tin later. Confectioner's rice paper (not to be confused with Asian rice paper used for Vietnamese rice paper rolls) is available from select delicatessens, Middle Eastern grocers and specialist food shops. If it proves difficult to track down, you can still make nougat; use lightly greased baking paper instead (though while confectioner's paper is edible, baking paper will have to be removed). Once all this is done, you're ready to start.
Focus, focus, focus, focus...
From this point it's quite straightforward, but focus and timing remain key. Once the honey is whisked into the eggwhite and the syrup has started cooking, don't walk away: it can be mere seconds between having a syrup that's not quite ready and one that's overcooked. The sugar thermometer is your greatest ally here: watch it like a hawk and you'll have no worries. Once the required temperature is reached, turn your mixer to low speed and pour the syrup down the side of the bowl.
If additional flavours appeal, such as vanilla, rosewater or orange-blossom water, now's the time to add them.
Increase the mixer speed once again and watch a snowy white, glossy mixture take shape. You're almost there now – just stir in the fruit and nuts (a sturdy metal spoon or spatula makes this a lot easier) and tip the mix into your prepared tin. Use a hot palette knife (dip it in hot water then dry it quickly) to press the mixture into the tin, cover it with extra rice paper and then weight it with your extra tin (or cardboard) and some food cans.
Listen to the weather man
Your nougat should set overnight, but this is weather-dependent – humidity or extreme heat will slow the setting time. Cut it into squares or fingers and store them in an airtight container between sheets of baking paper.
If it's very hot or humid, the nougat will soften, so in these conditions, keep it in the refrigerator and serve it chilled.
This recipe is based on Greg Malouf's recipe for gaz, the traditional name of Persian nougat. You'll need to begin this recipe a day ahead.