Almost every recipe of these three items I’ve read begins with a discussion of humidity – as in, “don’t try this when the humidity is high”. Let me begin with my digression up front, then. First, that rule is only sorta right. Second, it applies to ALL candy making.
First, why it applies. All candy making involves sugar. Sugar is hydroscopic – it absorbs
sugar water. Unless you’ve done something to bind or protect the sugar it’ll pull moisture from the air. As a result your candy will be softer than you intended. Yes, this is another place where the temperature is somewhat untrustworthy.
Second, why it’s only sorta true. You can use a variety of techniques to compensate. For almost all the candies, cooking to a slightly higher temperature (which means more water’s been boiled out) will partially correct the issue. Some candies have other things going on – ingredients added or beatings – that can also influence how dry the final result might be and which can be tweaked to cope with high humidity.
With that in mind, I want to note that for all three of these ingredients humidity really, really matters. The why leads also to why I’m grouping these.
The three are an outstanding example of how technique is at least as important as ingredients. What you do with the ingredients changes the end result.
See, all three are, at heart, sugar and whipped egg whites. All will almost always include a bit of vanilla. You’ll see cream of tartar pop up quite often. Nuts are frequent visitors. All that said these are distinctly different.
The easiest to distinguish is the meringue. First is the fact that this is the only one that’s baked. Done as a candy (or more properly as a cookie) the outside is very dry and crispy while the inside has the texture you expect from the topping of a meringue pie.
The other two are a lot closer. I’ve seen nougat recipes that are (for all intents and purposes) divinity recipes. In fact there really isn’t a huge difference for most people. For me, well, yeah.
In both cases you’re pouring heated sugar (syrup) into stiffly beaten egg whites and then whipping them. In the case of nougat you’re doing this twice (yep), and you’re using syrups of different water contents. As a result the nougat is a bit heavier and chewier than the divinity.
In all three case you’ve got two things (egg foam and sugar) that are very sensitive to humidity being worked together. If there is water in the air they WILL pull it in. Again you can cope, but you need to be prepared up front.
Let’s start with my personal least favorite (meaning I won’t eat more than half a batch at a sitting – grin) the meringue.
Preheat your oven to 250 – yes, you’re going to be cooking these at low temperature. You will need two egg whites, 2/3 cup of sugar (superfine is very much preferred here), a dash of cream of tarter, a pinch of salt. Optional is a half-teaspoon of vanilla or grated zest, or a tablespoon of cocoa for chocolate meringue.
Beat the egg whites to a froth, add the salt and tartar, and bring to very soft peaks. Add the flavoring if you’re doing so, and sprinkle about 1/3 of the sugar over the peaks. Beat till the sugar is absorbed, and do it again with the next third. Add the final third and beat till you get stiff peaks – they’re going to go from standing without drooping to looking a bit dry. DO NOT OVERBEAT – they will collapse if you do. If in doubt stop early.
Scoop spoonfuls of the meringue onto a parchment or silicone lined cookie sheet. Don’t use waxed paper or greased sheets – if you don’t have parchment or silicone use foil or a dry pan. You’re going to put these in your oven for at least 35 minutes and up to an hour. How long depends on both how dry you managed to make the meringue and what the humidity is like. Regardless, you’re going for a completely dry exterior. Test by trying to lift a cookie. If it comes up cleanly (or ‘breaks’ at the bottom if it sticks) it’s done. If it bends while lifting it’s not done yet. If they start to get a little color (light beige, etc) pull them anyway – you’re headed for caramelization/burning. Better a touch soft than burned.
That was easy, wasn’t it? Let’s do something a bit harder. Divinity.
Now before I begin I need to make some warnings. First and foremost regards your mixer. I have killed hand mixers making divinity. These days I know when it’s reaching the ‘kill the mixer’ stage and can (and will) add just a bit of water to avoid the problem. More fully, I also now use a stand mixer with a lot more powerful motor. Before I did either of those I went to the very old-fashioned method of hand-beating. It can be done, you will get a work-out, and you’ll do a lot better to have people help if you’re going that route. You have been warned.
You’re again going to need two egg whites. I still like the dash of cream of tartar and the pinch of salt as well as it gives me fuller whites (tartar) and a catalyst for the flavor (salt). Separate your eggs and put the whites into a bowl to start warming to room temperature. Now you’re going to start making a syrup with 2 2/3 cups of sugar and 2/3 cup of corn syrup. Digression time.
Putting it simply, the corn syrup is anti-seize insurance. You COULD just use 3 1/2 cups of sugar and a cup of water. However, the odds are it will seize and seize hard if you do so. For a number of reason I’m not going into here the corn syrup stops the problem 99% of the time – and if you’re still seizing you’ve got other problems going on as well. Back to the cooking.
Start the syrup cooking. When it hits the thread stage – when it first begins looking like a foam of bubbles on top – quit stirring. You’re going to bring your syrup to a crack stage, preferably the lower edge of hard crack. Now you’re going to find a lot of recipes that have a range of temperatures from hard ball to hard crack. They all make good divinity. In my experience, however, the closer to the magic zero water the more likely you are to have the divinity turn out ‘right’. But before we go to the crack stage, I told you to quit stirring.
I told you to quit for two reasons. First, at this point any stirring could create crystals, and this time we don’t want any seeds. Second, it’s time to make the foam of the egg whites. You know the drill: froth, add the tartar and salt, and whip till stiff. No, you’re not adding sugar to this foam – some recipes will call for it, and you’re welcome to try. It will create a slightly different texture, too, so you might like it. However, I’m sticking to ‘true’ divinity at this point. Anyway, whip the eggs to stiff, and then if you’re using a stand mixer exchange the whip head for a paddle head. Trust me on this.
About the time your eggs are stiff the syrup should be near or at the crack stage. Pull it from the heat and let it set for about 3-5 minutes. If you’ve a thermometer you’re looking for a 10 degree decrease. The reason you’re doing this is to save the amount of effort involved in the next stage.
You’re going to start your beaters going at full speed and drizzle the syrup into the result. A lot of things are going to start happening. The whites are going to bind with the sugar. They’re also going to cook. The existing bubble structure will transfer to the sugar which will remain light and bubbly in turn. Unfortunately this process is going to cause the whites to release the water they’re still holding. Part of this – a lot if you’re controlling the stream well – will escape immediately as steam. However, we’re going onward.
Once you’ve poured out all the syrup you can (preferably without scraping or stirring and creating more crystals) you’re going to keep the beaters going for another 15-30 minutes. About 5 or 10 minutes before you’re done you’ll add anything like nuts if you want – about half a cup to a cup of chopped nuts is fine – but you mainly want to aim for as dry a mix as you can get. When it approaches the ‘done’ stage it will get STIFF. If you waited too late, have a warm cup of water standing by and add a teaspoon or so to the mix. When it’s right on the edge of going fully stiff it’s time to SWIFTLY make your divinity. Here, there are two schools of thought.
The classic historical method would have you put the divinity into a lined or coated pan just as you would with fudge. The more modern method (which is typical of “southern” divinity) is to scoop out spoonfuls of mixture and place them on a sheet of waxed paper. This latter allows you to top each piece with a pecan (the ‘southern’) or maraschino cherry or some other grace note. Regardless of which method you use, allow the divinity to set for three to four hours to finish drying. When done cut it out of the pan if done that way and put in an airtight container with sheets of waxed paper between layers. Counter-intuitively, do NOT put these in the refrigerator. If you do they’ll absorb water and get sticky (stickier).
Now, I’m sure you thought that was a lot of work. It was. Take a moment to catch your breath and brace for the next because nougat is MORE work – but only sorta.
See, in some ways the best way to think of nougat is as twice-beat divinity. You’re going to take the same syrup ingredients we just made and pull one-third off to the side. You’ll bring the smaller quantity to soft-ball, let the temperature drop a bit, and beat it into the egg whites, then keep beating. After about ten or so minutes you’ll be adding the second syrup, this one taken to the crack (between soft and hard) stage and cooled, and add it to the mix. You’ll run the mixer for about 15-20 minutes, and pull out the result. Administratively, I recommend starting the hard-crack pot about the time you’d normally start beating the egg whites. With divinity you’ll probably have a gap between when the eggs are ready and the syrups ready to go into them, but since letting the whites stand won’t hurt it’s better to have them ready.
heh – that last paragraph sounded a bit short, didn’t it? And yet that’s all there is to it. The second batch of syrup gives a different texture from a single batch.
If you’re wanting to make a honey nougat pull about half the sugar and corn syrup from the small batch and replace with an equal volume of honey. It’ll take a little longer to bring to soft ball. If you’re going to add nuts and such to the nougat I recommend adding after the second syrup goes in, but you can get interesting tastes if they go in between the syrups.
I don’t make divinity very often, and these days I don’t make nougat. Frankly the taste/texture of nougat isn’t enough for me to do the extra effort, and divinity is such a pain it’s, well, it’s worth the effort but only sometimes.
But I think everyone who makes candy should at least give divinity a try. At least once, anyway, because the resulting candy is, well…