Black and White Nougat: Christmas Desserts in Provence
Nougat may not necessarily date back to France — depending on who you ask they may even say Italy or Spain — but there's no question that it's an important part of the holidays for the French. That's because both nougat noir (black) and nougat blanc (white) are two of the 13 Christmas desserts of Provence, which are all traditionally served on Christmas Eve.
The sweet treats date all the way back to the 16th century, and as the story goes, in France at least, an agronomist used the almonds from an almond tree in Montelimar, Provence, to replace walnuts in nougat. Thus, the Provencal tradition of nougat was born. Today, the almonds are typically harvested in August, and Montelimar is the world capital of the honey and almond candy.
When Christmas time comes around, the nougat blanc and noir is said to symbolize good and evil, respectively. While nougat can be either hard or soft, it's traditionally hard candy in Provence, so be careful when you take that first bite!
The process of making nougat noir is similar to how caramel is made. In other words, it's a speedy, but simple, process. As such, have all the ingredients lined up to go, or as the French say, mise en place. The basic recipe for this kind of nougat is to combine honey with toasted almonds and let them cook for a few minutes. Then, once the mixture has become golden brown, you can pour the mixture over bread and let it cool. The result can look like brittle.
On the other hand nougat blanc is a much more involved process, in part because it features more ingredients, including sugar, egg whites, and honey, and sometimes nuts like almonds or pistachios. But the result is much softer. In short, you'll melt white chocolate, mix together egg whites and salt, and then, in a separate bowl, combine corn syrup, water, and sugar. All these components will eventually be mixed together, and after it sets for a few hours, you'll have a delicious Provencal treat.
While nougat is a delight all its own, enjoy it even more by dipping into a bit of chocolate, or putting it in vanilla ice cream!
To learn more about making nougat, consider a Provence cooking class or vacation, perhaps "Cooking Passport to Provence," where Chef Berard delights in teaching his students all about French traditions.
By Liz Hall