No matter what I do, Christmas always seems to arrive too quickly. And this year is no exception. At least this time, however, I can say I anticipated the onslaught of additional tasks and deadlines to meet at my workplace, not to mention the maddening crowds shopping in the crazy month that is December. For the first time in years, I actually ordered the wrapping paper and string I needed to package the edible gifts I wanted to make (croccante di mandorle, an almond brittle) almost two months before Natale. You see, as soon as the Cucina Conversations ladies and I decided on this month’s topic, I knew that my Christmas-related recipe had to be the brittle brown nougat that is often served at the end of a meal in Italy’s south during this period. As Marialuisa, a native of Calabria, says in her post about ciciarata, non é Natale senza croccante, meaning ‘without croccante, it’s not Christmas’.
Made with two ingredients, caramellised sugar and almonds, this brittle’s origins are not entirely clear. There are some who believe it is based on an ancient Spanish recipe. Others, however, argue that it is an southern Italian derivation of an earlier Arab sweet, made with nuts, honey, sugar and spices. In Sicily, they still make the very similar cubbaita di giuggiulena (see Carmen’s recipe here), jaw-breaking lozenges made with sesame seeds, almonds, honey and sugar for Christmas and other festive occasions on the island. Anecdotal evidence would appear to support the latter theory. The name cubbaita is a clear derivation of the Arabic qubhayt. It was also the Arabs who introduced sugar cane to the island and for a few centuries, Sicily was home to sugar cane plantations which kept its nobles appetites’ for sweet confections and comfits satisfied.
With two base ingredients, preparing croccante would appear to be simple. But, as I have found in my past couple of months of recipe testing, making it does require some of practice. The caramel used to coat the almonds in croccante is a deep amber that looks on the edge of burnt but is in actual fact still sweet. It took me several trials (and some informative articles on the matter by Dan Lepard, David Lebovitz and Harold McGee) before I felt comfortable recognising the correct state in my thermometre-less kitchen. For the record, look out for the aforementioned dark amber colour and the formation of foam in the syrup. Oh, and if you do have a thermometre, you’re looking for a temperature of 190 degrees Celsius.
At cooking school, we’ve been taught to make a wet caramel, which means adding some water to the sugar during the liquefying process. In contrast, many recipes for croccante and other caramel-based confections, use a dry caramel technique and simply leave the sugar to melt on its own. The pace of caramellisation is quicker and less even though with a dry caramel, which requires a great deal of vigilance on the part of the cook. I’ve therefore opted with my recipe below to add some water.
Sugar also has a natural tendency to recrystallise, even after liquefying. It may seem counterintuitive but stirring the melting sugar encourages the solid masses to reform, resulting in clumping. So, whatever you do, don’t stir! Simply swirl the pan around to ensure the sugar melts evenly. Many professional cooks also like to keep those lumpy masses at bay by adding a few drops of lemon juice at the beginning of cooking time. For this reason, I’ve included a few drops of lemon juice in the recipe below too.
You’ll need to work very quickly too once the almonds and caramel are ready to be transferred and set in brittle bars. Once removed from heat, caramel tends to harden and become more difficult to work with. So, your work surface and utensils should all be prepped before you start cooking. A lightly-oiled cold marble slab is the ideal work surface for laying and setting your croccante. Failing that, a large piece of baking parchment (oiled on both sides so it sticks to the surface, such as a large baking tin, underneath it) works well too. Whatever you have on hand, make sure you’ve prepared it in advance. You’ll also need to take out your rolling pin (a potato masher also works well if you’re making a smaller amount) and prepare an extra piece of oiled baking parchment for flattening the setting almond and caramel mixture.
Finally, at a temperature of 190 degrees, handling that attractive nut and caramel mixture directly, even when it is setting, is out of the question too. Use the rolling pin or potato masher to flatten the setting croccante to avoid any contact with your hands. I’ve also found a small to medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan with a long handle is easier to work with when pouring the mixture onto the work surface. Please, take all precautions necessary (heatproof oven mitts, sending curious toddlers away) to avoid any unpleasant kitchen accidents!
A few notes on the following recipe, which was inspired by elements from Domenica Marchetti’s, Emiko Davies’ and Mary Taylor-Simeti’s recipes. Mine uses roasted blanched almonds but there are many croccante recipes which call for leaving the almonds’ skins on. Some people like to chop the whole almonds into smaller pieces too. There’s nothing stopping you from making this wonderful brittle with other nuts either. My father’s favourite version of croccante when he was growing up in Calabria was made with arachidi or peanuts. My Piedmontese husband loved a version I made with Langhe hazelnuts. I’ve just enjoyed a bar with my afternoon coffee which combined all three nuts. And, just so you know, lightly salting the nuts while roasting them makes for a wonderful contrast with the hardened caramel enclosing them. As usual, don’t be afraid to make this jaw-breakingly good festive treat your own.
Ingredients (makes about 12 – 15 bars of croccante)
vegetable oil, for coating baking paper
500 g refined granulated sugar
125 g water
a few drops of lemon juice, filtered
500 g freshly roasted blanched almonds, kept warm in a low heat oven
Line a shallow, large baking tin (I used one measuring 34cm x 27cm) with baking paper lightly oiled on both sides. Place the tin on top of a damp tea-towel next to your stovetop. Pour sugar into a long-handled, shallow, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add water and lemon juice. Cook on low to medium heat. Swirl saucepan gently to ensure sugar is cooking evenly. After the sugar dissolves completely and begins boiling, the syrupy liquid will begin to change colour. Pour oven-warmed almonds into pan when the liquid is a pale golden colour. Using a wooden spoon, stir and coat the almonds with the rapidly browing caramel. Continue to cook until the caramel is foaming and a dark amber colour. Pour caramel onto prepared baking tin, place second sheet of baking paper on top (the oiled side should be facing downwards) of the mixture and use rolling pin to apply pressure and flatten it to desired height (about 1 to 1.5 cm). Leave to cool until almost but not completely set. Using a lightly oiled chef’s knife, cut into pieces. Longer, rectangular bars work wonderfully for gifts. Squares work well for serving at home. If making an edible gift wrap in baking paper or store in a lined, airtight container (I like to use biscuit tins) in a cool, dry place.
In the meantime, don’t forget to check out my fellow #cucinaconversations bloggers’ recipes for this period:
Finally, please forgive the self-promotion but I’m very proud to announce that I’ve been nominated in the 2016 edition of Italy Magazine’s Blogger Awards. Visit this link here to vote for me in the Best New Blog Category. My good friend and fellow adopted torinese Sonia of A Texas Mom in Torino has also been nominated for Best Living in Italy Blog. Voting is open until 29th December and the winners will be announced early in the New Year.
Wishing you all a croccante-filled Christmas and New Year! Ci vediamo nel 2017!