Growing up in Italy, you can always count on it… an uncle, a school mate or your father’s coworker will definitely give you some torrone: plain, chocolate covered or soft with almonds, the choices are endless. You can enjoy it all by yourself, share it with those dear to you or leave it out for Santa so he can have a midnight snack. No matter what kind and when or where, it is not Christmas without it. And no holiday meal is the same without it at the dining table. Torrone, the most popular Italian nougat candy, which, together with pandoro and panettone, has become a symbol of an Italian Christmas, is made of honey, sugar and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, covered in edible rice paper and usually shaped into either a rectangular tablet or a round cake.
But how did it all start? It is always quite a challenge to find out the date and place of the birth of a beloved food specialty given that what we know today has been shaped over the centuries by retelling. This particular story goes back to the Roman Empire, when, in 116 B.C., Marco Terenzio Marrone “Reatino,” a politician and prolific writer, wrote about the so-called, and tasty, “Cuppedo,” and “Cupeto” which is still today a name used to identify torrone (which comes from the latin verb torrere, meaning to toast) in Southern Italy. One of the first recipe books in history “De re culinaria” (a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD) by Marco Gavio “Apicio,” (Aupicius) mentions a sweet candy made of honey, egg whites and almonds.
Yet, there are other hypotheses and one of the most reliable is that torrone has Middle Eastern origins. To support this there are several testimonies of a mixture of almonds, honey, sugar and several spices that was imported from the Orient by the Venetians who had intense commercial exchanges with the east Mediterranean. This version of the sweet became popular and beloved in the Middle Ages and was prepared for Christmas and other important holidays. Between 1100 and 1150 Geraldo da Cremona translated a book by the doctor from Cordoba Abdul Mutarrif where he exalted the benefits of honey and he mentioned an Arabian sweet named “turun.”
But let’s put aside these theories, because the Italian tradition of torrone has a very specific date and place of birth: Cremona (in Lombardy), October 25, 1441, the day of the wedding between Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza. For the grand reception, the court pastry chefs prepared a sweet with those ingredients whose shape represented the town’s tower (in Cremonese dialect torrione), called Torrazzo. This is where the name torrone is truly said to come from. Still in Cremona, starting in the 1500s torrone became an appreciated gift, especially among the rich who would give it to each other for Christmas.
Up to the last century, torrone was made by bakers who prepared it after being done with making bread. It was also made in by pastry chefs and candy makers. Later, factories were built to make it an industrialized product. There is a clear distinction between hand-made and industrial torrone. Modern technology and special machinery are used in order to make a good product, without excess moisture and with just the right crunch. Torrone from Cremona is an IGP product (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, Protected Geographical Indication, which guarantees a product originating from a city, a region or a country whose quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographical origin).
Today torrone is considered a national sweet treat that is loved all through the Peninsula and almost every Italian little town has their own recipe.
The first and biggest difference between different types of torrone is that there is a hard (friabile) and a soft (morbido) version and that is due to several factors. First, the length of cooking of mixture: the hard one is such because it cooks for a longer period of time, sometimes even reaching up to ten hours, especially for some traditional versions. Equally important is the percentage of candied fruit added, the ratio of honey and sugar added and the quantity of egg white added to the mixture.
Soft torrone, instead, is cooked for no more than three hours. That results in a higher concentration of water and that, combined with a bigger percentage of glucose ends up a softer dough. More modern variations include chocolate covered torrone, and torrone made with different ingredients, such as fruit, zests, nuts and seeds, like sesame seeds, added in the mix. This varies depending on the region torrone is made in. Some regional examples are – Sardinia, torrone with walnuts and peanuts, with no candied fruit and sugar. Turrinargios are torrone makers from Sardinia and they add local products such as myrtle and arbutus berries; Lombardia, chocolate covered torrone; Abruzzo, brown torrone with chocolate and hazelnuts; Veneto, torrone with dried almonds; Sicily, torrone with pistachios.Torrone di Benevento from Benevento, in Campania, sometimes goes by the historic name Cupedia, which signifies the crumbly version made with hazelnuts.
Torrone is easy to make at home, it is indeed easy enough that kids can prepare it with their grandmothers as part of their family Christmas tradition, and it can be adapted to just about any taste. Grandmas always have torrone in the house, either bought or home made. Torrone is best made in winter, when temperatures are cool and dry. If made on a warm, humid day, the mix may be sticky and not set properly. Until recent years torrone was available from October through January and strictly associated with Christmas but today it can be found throughout the year. In Naples, for example, torrone is eaten on November 2nd to celebrate the dead. The candy keeps for a few weeks, which makes it a perfect choice for gift giving, but it rarely lasts that long because it is too good to resist. Because of all its ingredients, torrone is very caloric and it is better not to exaggerate. Yet, for Christmas everything is allowed, even Santa can’t say no between shifts!
- 1-1/2 c.good-quality honey
- 3 c. blanched (peeled) almonds
- 1-1/2 c. hazelnuts
- 1-1/4 c. sugar
- 3 egg whites
- the zest of 1 lemon
- the zest of 1/2 an orange
Using a double broiler, simmer the honey for an hour and a half. Stir regularly using a wooden spoon so that the honey doesn’t separate or burn.
Lightly toast the nuts in the oven (they will toast at a low heat, about 250F – 300F). When they are golden brown (it should take about 15 minutes), remove them from the oven, put them in a bowl and set aside. Add 6 to 8 tablespoons of water to the sugar in a saucepan and caramelize. (Do this about ten minutes before the honey is done.)
Beat the egg whites into peaks and fold them into the honey. Stir for five minutes until well blended. Then stir in the caramelized sugar and mix until blended.
To the sugar, egg, and honey mix, add the nuts and the zests from the lemon and orange, stirring for a few minutes. Pour the mix into a shallow rectangular pan or Pyrex dish lined with thin paper wafers called “ostie.” (You can find these by searching “ostie” at baking supply stores online; if you cannot find these, you can used rice paper instead.) Cover the mixture with another layer of ostie.
Using a spatula, make sure the mixture is level in the pan, then weigh the torrone down with another dish on top of the top layer of ostie/rice paper and let stand for at least 30 minutes, up to an hour. Then turn the dish upside down and – ecco! Your torrone is ready to be cut into little rectangles and served. Store your torrone in an airtight container with wax paper separating the pieces.