Candy Cane Nougat Bites
It's a chilly, dreary, rainy day here in San Francisco (the California way of ushering in winter).
I'm getting more pregnant by the minute (now firmly in my third trimester, and by the looks of yesterday's ultrasound, all is good with Sir Baby, thank you).
I have also been hit with some ungodly cold-ish virus that I know I caught from Little C, who was sick earlier this week (so dirty, little kids, I tell ya).
I've just dropped my precious offspring off at school for the last time this year, and am now back in bed, surrounded by pillows and tissues and hot water, which seems to be the only freaking thing with which they let sick pregnant people medicate other than the occasional Tylenol, which is a liar and a complete joke when what I really need is, like, 12 DayQuil capsules and a nebulizer full of Xanax to quell my holiday to-do list anxiety.
But! Despite all this doom and gloom and wahhhh, my life is so harrrrd..., yesterday was glorious. Glorious, I say! We were a fine-tuned baking operation, me and Little C, cranking out cookies, brownies, and an extra special holiday confection to add to the tins of goodies we assembled for her teachers. These Candy Cane Nougat Bites are sweet, minty, melt-in-your-mouth pillows of heaven and I encourage you to try making them as your One Last Thing to do before Christmas, which I'm sure you don't have enough of already, right?
Back in the day, when I was a young, precocious thing growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I lived within minutes of lots of extended family, a concept which seems so foreign now, having been on the West Coast for almost 10 years, and now having a child who usually only sees cousins and aunts and uncles via Skype. Anyway, as a kid I spent a lot of time at my Gramma's house (she of epic sugar cookies and the passer-on of the world's best pound cake). Gramma lives in a snazzy condo these days, but I still have dreams that I'm in that old house, poking around. It was always a place of fun and warmth, but around the holidays, things got crazy festive, an explosion of Christmas decor lining the walls, little red velvet bows adorning framed photos, and crystal-cut bowls of candy tucked here and there, most reachable by even the shortest grandchild.
In the front room of the house, the living room, the one you walked right into upon entering the front door, there was a (pretty tacky, I guess) gold gilded full-length mirror with a low ledge that held a few knickknacks. But at Christmastime, there was also a candy dish set on the ledge, the one that was filled with Brach's Peppermint Nougats. Soft, with a hearty chew, resembling those little hard, round peppermint candies with their border of red and white stripes, but with a tooth-staining deep green Christmas tree right in the center. I freaking loved those peppermint nougats. They're not quite as easy to find here in California as they are in the Midwest, but when I do find them, I tend to hoard them.
This year, I decided to translate that idea into something a touch more elegant, even softer in texture, a dreamier version of those peppermint nougats of Christmases past. And dress them up further with a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate, because...chocolate.
This recipe is a riff on one from Pure Vanilla--Vanilla Nougat Candy Bar Bites, my ode to those of us who like to gnaw at candy bars in stages; first the chocolate, then the caramel and nuts, leaving a perfect slab of unadorned, creamy, chewy, fluffy nougat for the savoring. If you're familiar with the Southern confection called divinity, then you're on the right track to understanding the process here: a combination of beaten egg whites and hot sugar syrup, whipped until thick and cloud-like. The difference between divinity and nougat, however, is one small but crucial detail--heating the syrup to two different temperatures and adding them in stages to the meringue. What-what? Let me explain.
Once the egg whites are beaten to soft/medium peaks and your sugar syrup is cooked to soft-ball stage, you drizzle in half the syrup, beating all the while to create a glossy, stable meringue. Return the pot of syrup to the stove, boiling the remainder just a minute or so more to a soft crack stage. The first syrup addition gives lift and structure to the candy, and the second, hotter addition is what will dry the mixture and give the candy its craveworthy texture--airy, creamy with the vaguest hint of chew, before melting on the tongue. A drizzle of chocolate that sets to a snap and a smattering of crushed candy canes add even more flavor and crunch. I can't be contained, people. So, so good.
All tippy techniques and goofy foodie adjectives aside, what you have here is something that's perfect with after dinner coffee or tucking into gifty cookie tins to add a little extra fancy. An equal opportunity Holiday Joy Inducer. And something that every single one of you deserves this year. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday celebration, wherever you are, and I thank you for visiting this space and just being you. I'll see you again back here real soon.
Candy Cane Nougat Bites Adapted from Pure Vanilla
This holiday version of these nougat bites are irresistible, but without the crushed candy cane bits added, what you've got is a perfect canvas for creative confectionery endeavors. Flavor it however you like with different extracts or candy oils, fold in dried fruits and nuts for a riff on the classic Italian torrone, or use it as inspiration for your own homemade candy bars.
Aim for a dry day to make this or any kind of candy, really. High humidity or rain will kep the candy from drying and setting properly.
I highly recommend a stand mixer for this recipe--the candy becomes so thick and heavy towards the end of the beating time that your average handheld mixer might blow up under the stress.
If the egg whites reach soft peaks before the syrup reaches 238°F, stop the mixer—you want the whipped whites to be ready and waiting for the syrup, not the other way around.
Even with their minty bite and counterpoint of bittersweet chocolate, these little gems are SWEET. I cut my nougat slab into bite-size pieces, about 1-inch squares, and no bigger than 1 1/2 inches.
Makes 18-20 pieces
2 large egg whites, at room temperature 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar 1/2 cup water 1/3 cup light corn syrup 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70% cacao), melted 1/3 cup crushed peppermint candy cane bits (about 4 large canes, or 15-16 minis). divided
Lightly spray an 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and use a paper towel to wipe away any excess. Line it with parchment paper and lightly spray the parchment, too, again wiping lightly with a paper towel.
In a medium heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium-high heat, stir together the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt. Boil until the syrup reaches 238°F.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed to medium peaks, about 2 minutes. With the mixer running on medium speed, slowly pour just half the syrup into the egg whites, beginning with just a tablespoon or two to warm up the whites before you pour in more to avoid scrambling the egg whites. (Aim for the space between the beater and the bowl, even letting the syrup run down the side of bowl a bit into the whites, to avoid having the syrup spin all over the sides of the bowl.) Beat until thickened, like marshmallow cream. Beat in the vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste. Stop the mixer.
Set the pan back over medium-high heat and bring it back up to a boil. When the second half of the syrup reaches 275°F, set the mixer back on medium speed and slowly pour in the remaining syrup. Raise the mixer speed to high and beat until the nougat is very thick and heavy, begins to lose its gloss, and the bowl is mostly cool except for the very bottom, 10 to 12 minutes (stop the mixer every four to five minutes to scrape down the bowl). Stir in 1/4 cup of the candy cane bits by hand.
Scrape the nougat into the prepared pan and spread it into place. Let set at room temperature until completely cool and firm, about 2 hours. Invert the candy slab out onto a cutting surface and remove the parchment, so that the sticky side is facing up (the side that was exposed to the air while setting should be dry and not sticky when touched). Cut the slab into small squares.
Line a baking sheet with a clean sheet of parchment paper. Place the nougat squares sticky side up on the sheet. Pour the melted chocolate into a small zip top bag, and Use scissors to snip a small hole in the corner of the bag. Drizzle a bit of chocolate over each square. Sprinkle each nougat square with the reserved crushed candy cane bits. Let the chocolate set before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.