Nougat Noir, the Surprisingly Vegan French Confection
The question I’m most interested in these days is how we bakers adapt the delicious world of pastries to climate change. Everything we eat needs to have a lower carbon footprint, and that includes baked goods. The biggest climate villain in the food world is animal products, like meat and dairy. So it’s ironic that for my pastry training, I’ve plopped myself smack dab in the center of the known butter universe: Paris.
Evidence of dairy is everywhere you walk down the cobblestoned streets of Paris. The buttery smell of crackly pain au chocolats wafts out of the corner bakery. The scent of herbed escargot sizzles up from butter-filled shells as you venture past a brasserie. The smack of a businessman’s lips as he sips hurriedly on a thick hot chocolate on his way to the metro, unaware of the smudge of chantilly cream on his upper lip.
And that’s to say nothing of my pâtisserie classes at Le Cordon Bleu, which are basically a long procession of ways to incorporate butter into flour: hundred-layer puff pastry, cream-stuffed éclairs, an almond pavé cake made with nearly a pound of high-fat butter from Normandy. So much for low-carbon baking.
So when I hear one of our chefs mention a French sweet that’s naturally plant-based, my ears perk right up.
You may have heard of nougat, the French delicacy that’s sold everywhere at Christmas. The type you see most often is nougat de Montélimar, which is soft, chewy, and studded with almonds. Its creamy color and marshmallowy texture come from one of its main ingredients: egg whites. It also contains honey, sugar, glucose (in modern versions, to lower the sweetness), and at least 30% almonds by weight – that’s how it earns the name Montélimar.
But what most people don’t know is that the egg whites weren’t added to the nougat recipe until the 18th century in the Drôme-Pronençale town of Montélimar, where it was such a hit that it became one of the 13 Provençal Christmas desserts.
Before the 1700s, nougat was made with a simpler blend of honey, sugar, and nuts. Compared to its whiter and springier modern counterpart, this older nougat is called Nougat Noir – black nougat. And its roots are much more global. Its origins date to the ancient Middle East, and it is thought to be one of the oldest confections in the world, after jam (which only really counts as a candy if you ask Joey Tribiani).
After learning all this from my pastry chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, I wanted to make nougat noir since it’s plant-based, to see if it’s any good. But I couldn’t find many recipes for it online, and the few I could were a) in French, and b) weren’t cooked in the authentic way my chefs had described. So I decided to develop my own recipe, based on a piece of advice Chef Olivier Mahut had dispensed in passing: That the sugar should be cooked separately from the honey, to a dark caramel.
After nearly a dozen trial batches, I came up with a recipe I love. I hope you like it, because it’s a little-known and historical European confection that’s vegan and more environmentally friendly. If you make it, let me know how it goes!
Sources: Le Cordon Bleu, Paris
Recipe: Nougat Noir
To make a batch of nougat noir, you’ll need almonds, honey, sugar, salt, and vanilla. I recommend using a vanilla pod if you can, because it adds so much complex flavor. But in a pinch, you can omit it entirely, the flavor just won’t be as floral. A word to the wise: Don’t try this recipe without a candy thermometer. It’s crucial to cook the sugar to a very hot caramel (180C or 355F), and then to keep the honey/caramel mixture below 130C (265F), since honey loses its flavor at higher heat. Traditionally, nougat is allowed to cool on a heat-safe pan or surface for a few hours, then molded by hand into a flat log shape, and sliced. It’s semi-solid at room temperature, so you’ll want to package the slices in edible rice paper to help them keep their shape.
- 200g honey
- 70g sugar
- 150g almonds
- Pinch salt
- Half a vanilla pod, scraped
- Edible rice paper (available on Amazon)
- Preheat your oven to 300F, and place the almonds in a pan. Your aim is to heat them in the oven just enough so they’re hot when you add them to the honey/caramel mixture in step 5. Almonds will be hot after about 5-8 minutes in the oven – be careful not to burn them.
- In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan set over low/medium heat, melt the sugar. Using a candy thermometer to measure, cook the caramel to 180C (355F), swirling. It’ll be a dark brown. Adjust the heat as necessary if the temperature is increasing too quickly or slowly. Pull the pan off heat as soon as it hits 180C (355F).
- Off heat, swirl the caramel in the pan to lower the heat to about 125C (257F). Honey loses its flavor at 130C (265F), so it has to be cooler than that before you add the honey.
- Add the honey to the pan. Back over low heat, stir gently until the caramel re-melts. It’s going to seize up at first and look hopeless – that’s normal. Keep stirring gently with the tip of the candy thermometer and swirling the pan to melt it.
- Once the caramel is completely re-melted, cook the mixture gently until it reaches 115C (239F). Add the hot almonds and stir. Add salt and vanilla, and stir again. Mixture should be bubbling.
- Cook a few more minutes or until the mixture reaches 125C (257F), stirring, then pour onto a parchment paper-lined, rimmed pan. Careful – the mixture will be hot.
- Let the nougat set until it’s just warm, and then mold into a brick. Slice width-wise into small slices, then package slices in edible rice paper.