Cranberry-Pistachio Torrone

All right, my December-loving comrades. Let's cut the crazy and get to some serious Christmas candy making. I'm talking about jade-green pistachios and ruby-red cranberries bound together by the dreamiest vanilla nougat this side of a Charleston Chew. It's called torrone (tore-OH-nay), it's an Italian holiday classic, and making it will bring you one step closer to Giada. I don't think there's anything wrong with any of that, do you?

In my quest to make this Italian tradition come alive in the Piece of Cake kitchen, some serious research was required. And because we're friends and it's the holidays, I couldn't be happier to drop the knowledge I've gained during this entire torrone-making experience. And believe me, it was quite the experience.

What I found was that the edible wafer paper that's called for in so many torrone recipes is absolutely, totally NOT optional, lest you enjoy spending precious time caressing sugar syrup and egg whites into candy only to find yourself unable it to get it out of the dang pan. Not to mention scraping strings of nougat from your hair and countertops hours later. Seek out this magical wafer paper, friends. It's seriously cheap and readily available online, but I found it at a baking supply shop near my house, no problem. And the surly lady at the counter even called me out and predicted I was making torrone! A baking psychic, that lady is.

Besides the wafer paper, you cannot get by without a candy thermometer for this one, guys. The syrup needs to be heated above 300 degrees, and the cold water tests you can do for lower temperatures required by other candy recipes won't really work here. Save yourself.

I also will say that this isn't the sort of recipe that you can do with an electric hand mixer. You really do need a heavy-duty stand mixer for this job, what with its 15 minutes or so of intense whipping at high speed and the final consistency of the nougat which resembles something like sticky caulk (albeit terribly delicious caulk). I really don't want you spending the holidays nursing muscle strains because I talked you into making torrone without mentioning this key element. So beg, borrow or steal a KitchenAid of you dont have one, because I'm telling you, this torrone is so, so worth it.

Beyond those few crucial tips, once you've got your equipment set and your torrone-making wits about you, the process here is really pretty easy and fun. Just heat up your syrup to the right temperature, whip up some egg whites, and then whip the two together in a great fury. When the candy is set and sliced into bars, the stained-glass effect is just so dang pretty, you'll think you've gone to candy church. Or something like that. But really, I can't think of a more festive little gift for all the randoms in your life that deserve a little something special. Or heck, just do it up like me and make it for yourself to devour it while watching Giada. It's the holidays, after all.

Cranberry-Pistachio Torrone
Adapted loosely from Martha Stewart

Edible wafer paper is widely available online, and in baking and kitchen supply stores, especially during the holidays.

The firmness of the finished candy is dependent on how hot you cook the syrup. Be sure you get it to the right temperature or the candy will be still be edible, but really soft, almost runny, and hard to eat.

You can find dessicated coconut at any health or natural foods store (like Whole Foods). I absolutely adore the surprise of the coconut here, but if you're not a coconut person, try a cup of sliced almonds instead.

Makes 8 2x4-inch bars

2 pieces edible wafer paper, cut to 8x8 inches
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
Generous pinch of salt
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup sweetened dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups shelled salted pistachios
1 1/3 cups dessicated (unsweetened, finely shredded) coconut

With a tiny bit of vegetable oil or cooking spray on a paper towel, very lightly oil only the sides of an 8-inch square baking pan. Fit 1 piece of wafer paper in the bottom of the pan.

Combine sugar, honey, corn syrup, 1/2 cup water and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture just begins to simmer and sugar has dissolved, about 6 minutes. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Continue to cook, without stirring, until mixture reaches 315 degrees.

Meanwhile, put egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until stiff (but not dry) peaks form. Raise speed to high. When the syrup is up to temperature, pour it into the whipping egg whites in a slow, steady stream. Beat until mixture has thickened significantly and the bowl is cool to the touch, 10-15 minutres. Reduce speed to medium-low and beat in the vanilla and almond extract. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl well with a hard plastic spatula. Remove the whip attachment and scrape it down as well. Switch to the paddle attachment and on low speed, stir in the cranberries, pistachios and coconut.

Working quickly, scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. Lightly oil your hand with cooking spray or vegetable oil and press the candy into an even layer, making sure to get it all the way into the corners of the pan. Place the second sheet of wafer paper (smooth side up) on the surface of the candy, and press firmly, making the the entire surface of the candy is covered. Let cool and set on a wire rack for several hours or overnight.

With a thin, sharp knife, cut around edges of torrone to loosen. Invert the pan onto a work surface, giving it a few good smacks to get the candy slab to fall out of the pan. Using a long, sharp knife, first trim off any ragged edges, then cut into 8 2x4-inch bars (dip the knife in hot water and wipe it off before each cut to make cutting cleaner and easier). Torrone can be stored between layers of parchment in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.

CandyShauna Sever