Dancing the Meringue

August 9, 2012

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Katie and I have done an awesome job making a new recipe every week. Largely the process by which we’ve done this is to check out a bunch of cook books from the library, copy all the recipes that look yummy, and then try them. If they’re good, we keep them, if they’re not, we give them to our friends.

(I kid, I kid).

Part of Katie’s secret plot is to expose me to some flavors we don’t typically cook with. I’m all for it since Father Burb** did a good job of giving us a huge range of foods as kids. I mean, how many people have had caviar before the age of 12 or have helped butcher their own deer. Seriously. That said, I’m a *little* skittish about certain flavors that I have not really cared for in the past. Most of those fall in to the category of Indian spices and flavors (This means you curry, coconut milk, and ginger!). The conflict comes in where Katie loves them and I hate them, so she checked out a book that had everything to do with using spices to make exciting food. I agreed to be open-minded about it, and we began copying recipes.

All of that is the preface to an only sort of related thought. In flipping through this book, Katie noticed a recipe for nougat. Like, REAL nougat. Not that stuff you find in candy bars, the stuff you find in the Mediterranean. She also recalled that I happen to REALLY REALLY LOVE nougat. Who knew it would be that easy to get me to like eastern flavors. Ha!

Anyhoo, she decided to “make me some” which actually means she started them, then got wrapped up in something else, so *I* made nougat. Still, it doesn’t really matter how it happened, the important thing is that it did.

Nougat, like so many other forms of yumminess, start with a hefty amount of sugar. In this case we are working with a blend of sugar, corn syrup, and honey. Bring this to a boil, stirring/whisking occasionally until it incorporates and begins to boil. Clip in your candy thermometer and brush the sides of the pan down with water. Then let it go.

While the syrup mixture is coming up to temperature, take some room-temperature egg whites and start whipping them in to meringue. Tip: Using room-temperature eggs is awesome because they are so much easier to work with, especially for something like meringue. Because the eggs are warmer, the proteins have an easier time relaxing and stretching out, meaning you can work it harder faster. Whip your egg whites in to softish to lightly stiff peaks. Tip: Save back your egg yolks! We turned right around and used them in a custard because obviously. I guess you could also mix them in to your dog’s dinner to promote a healthy, shiny coat, but  I think everyone will agree that custard is  obviously the better option. Obviously.

Once your eggs are about the right consistency, make sure your syrup reaches a “soft ball” stage. This means that when dropped in to water, the syrup will form a ball shape that is soft and loses its shape when pressed between your fingers. On a candy thermometer this is around 234 F or 224 F for those at altitude. You can see that the syrup is very very lightly starting to take on color. The bubbles will transition from small and fast to larger and slower.

Once you reach the soft ball stage, turn your eggs back on at a slow mix and pour approximately one quarter of your syrup in to the eggs. You want to pour slowly and toward the edge of the bowl so you disrupt the eggs as little as possible. Working too fast can deflate your eggs and ruin the fluffy quality of the meringue. Once you get the syrup in, turn the eggs to medium speed and put the syrup back on the stove.

Bring the remaining syrup up to a “hard crack” at around 300 F/ 290 F at altitude. When this syrup is dropped in to water it forms in to a firm and brittle sugar chunk.

You can see how the syrup has taken on a much deeper color under the bubbles. The bubbles are also bigger and slower, as compared to the bubbles in the soft ball picture. Once you reach this temperature, turn the stove off and again slowly add your syrup in to your eggs, which should be mixing at a slow speed.

Once all the syrup is in, increase the speed and continue to whip the mixture until it is fluffy and glossy.

Once everything is incorporated and smooth, add in a bit of butter and some vanilla. We also chose to add pistachios, which are traditional, although the recipe called for almonds. Another traditional flavor is rose water. Just be careful with the rose water. It’s strong stuff and can make your confection taste like soap.

BE CAREFUL! The sugar is  extremely hot and will make your mixing bowl similarly really hot. Further, working with sugar can be dangerous regarding burns. The natural instinct is to wipe it off if you get sugar on you. DON’T. It will smear and burn more of you. Get it under very cold water as soon as possible to cool the sugar off for safe removal. Also, wear shoes when you work with sugar. Seriously. Dangerous stuff. Also: delicious stuff.

Once your mixture is incorporated, you’ve mixed in your roughly chopped pistachios (or other ingredients), take the nougat at pour it in to a WELL BUTTERED cookie tray. This stuff is super super sticky so if you don’t grease your tray well…have fun getting that out. Pour in enough nougat to comfortably fill the tray, smooth it in to the corners, and refrigerate to chill and set. It’s important to let it chill for at least four hours. Remember how it was super hot? It will stay hot in the middle for quite a while. Plus it will be much easier to cut when it is cold.

Once cool, place a piece of wax paper over the top of the tray and smooth on to the nougat. Then turn your tray over and work the nougat out. I did this over a cutting board so that I could then directly slice it. I also found that it is helpful to loosen as much of it as you can before flipping it – I took my bash and chop and worked it under all the sides so that I had a lot less to detach when upside down and awkward.

You can actually see my bash and chop lines in the middle. While the sides were free, I had to take the BnC and loosen the middle. This is  significantly easier with a buddy.

Once out, place a second piece of wax paper over the top. Then take a well oiled knife and cut the nougat in to smaller pieces. You could go high class and wrap each piece in a piece of wax paper. We took the heathen approach and just stacked them in to a container. The downside is that because our house was a million degrees, they kind of stuck together on the sides. The good news is that you can pretty easily snap them apart when cold. The better news is that it also means that “one piece” might not be the same as one piece 😀

This recipe actually made two trays worth, so we had quite a lot. The nougat is sticky like a taffy (mind your teeth!) and tastes strongly like honey. However, when you get a bite with the pistachio, it is utterly to die for.

**EDIT: Mother Dear Mother was also a HUGE driver of the variety of my diet.

So anyone who knows the two of us, knows that fluffy, meringue-based candy is apparently the way to our hearts (marshmallows, anyone?). So with that in mind, and two days off in a row, I decided to try to make a homemade version of the Holy Grail of meringue candies-nougat. I started off with this recipe, which is honey-almond flavored.

Nougat starts off a lot like marshmallows, but unlike marshmallow, you don’t use the magic of gelatin to make it set up. Just the magic of egg whites, which, really, are pretty amazing. The big difference in the set up was that I added honey to the sugar and corn syrup in the simple syrup. This gives me the honey part of the flavor, and allowed me to use up an old, sugared, bottle of honey I had lying around. 

That came to a boil just like any other syrup, and at the same time I was beating two egg whites to stiff peaks. The idea is that one’s egg whites reach stiff peaks and one’s syrup reaches 251 degrees (remember 241 for those at Denver altitude) at the same moment. My timing wasn’t great, so I ended up bringing the eggs up a little fast and hard, which may have been one of my issues in the end. Once you get to this magical point, you take a 1/4 cup of hot syrup and slowly add it to your meringue. Now it’s a hot syrup meringue.

At the same time, or if you’re more organized than I was, a little before this, you should toast the nuts you want in your final candy. I went with all almonds because it’s what we had on hand. The original recipe also calls for pistachios and walnuts. The original recipe also wanted whole nuts, but I thought that might be a little unruly, so I did a rough chop on the nuts as well.

The whole time you’re doing all of these other things, your syrup continues to cook until it reaches 315 degrees. This is the beginning of a whole lot of mixing, and the transformation from egg whites and syrup to candy.

As you can see in the picture the syrup is a nice golden brown color  at this point. You want to keep an eye on it so it doesn’t scorch. Once it’s at the appropriate temperature, slow your mixer way down, and drizzle the syrup into the meringue mixture which should be at stiff peaks. The syrup is so hot it will kind of melt your meringue, but turn the mixer back up, and let it run until the candy starts to hold it’s shape again. While that mixture is re-inflating, you can grab the rest of your ingredients.

 

This particular recipe is flavored with vanilla and almond extracts (2 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp almond), a pinch of salt to bring out the flavors, and butter. Once your mixture is re-inflated, stop the mixer and add in your last ingredients. You’ll notice the butter makes the mixture shiny and opaque like taffy. From here you’re going to beat it some more, until you get a ribbon when you lift the beater out of the mixer. This texture, is like taffy, but a little softer. From here, you stir the nuts in by hand, and then spread in a well-oiled baking pan.

As you can see, this is where my experience got a little interesting. Once I had the nuts in there, it started to set up fast, and it was very hard to spread. I didn’t even manage to get it to cover the whole bottom of the pan, and I don’t seem to have the quantity of candy that the recipe suggests that I will. I suspect that my timing was a little off and some of the sections involving mixing could have been done a little more slowly and gradually. However, the taste is good, as I can attest from licking the bowl, so that gives me hope and little more preparation for next time.