By the time I get to Nonna’s house, she’s already got the sugar and almonds out, the scales are on the table and she’s set up a make-shift stove which might be the perfect height for 5 foot nothing Nonna, but is not-so-perfect for 5 foot 10 me:
I decide it’s pointless to complain about the back-breaking height of the stove – if that’s how Nonna wants it, that’s how it will stay – and instead ask where everyone is.
“Your Uncle Sam’s in bed, little Tony’s got work to do, and your Mum and Dad went to buy a Christmas tree. When there’s work to be done (she sighs)…you know your Mother has never been interested in making the torrone, never. To eat it, yes, to take it to the shop, yes, but to make it? No no no no….”
Poor Lila. She does the most for Nonna but being the first-born female in an Italian household means you’re expected to do everything, all the time, and if you’re waiting to be thanked for it? Well there’s more chance of me not being asked when I’m having grandchildren…
Nonna mumbles some more about my mother’s lack of interest in all things culinary and tells me to weigh out 800 grams of sugar and 1 kilo of almonds.
Really? Weigh stuff? Nonna never weighs anything and I call her on it.
“What happened to using your ‘occhio’ Nonna? You say your eye is the best measurement for everything. All you need is your hands and your eyes and you can cook?”
“Yes, that’s true but no, not for this. Weigh it.”
The sugar goes in the pan over low heat. Nonna watches it and explains we are waiting for it to turn to honey. Not sure how sugar can turn into honey but, again, it’s not an argument worth having. I get on top of a chair and take the following pictures, and then I get in trouble.
“Get off the chair! What are you doing? You’ll fall! And put your shoes on! Why aren’t your shoes on? Why do you never wear shoes?”
Nonna has this thing about us being barefoot. I think she would be less offended if we were naked. No, actually, I know that’s not true – once I wore skin-coloured tracksuit pants (don’t ask why, I don’t know) and my brother had some friends around and Nonna came in and lost it, like really lost it:
“How can you be naked IN FRONT OF BOYS? What is wrong with you? Scustamata che non sei altra (which kind of means something like you’re the sluttiest of slutbag women to ever walk the earth)!”
“But Nonna, they’re pants, look!”
“Ah, hmm, yes, they are, but PUT YOUR SHOES ON!!!!”
Lost in memories of flesh-toned pants past, Nonna points out that the sugar has in fact turned into a honey-like syrup, so we should now add the almonds. This is where the fun starts and where you see an 89-year-old woman who only 10 minutes before said “I hurt so much, I can’t move AT ALL! Old age is awful, my granddaughter, awful!” stir the sticky mess of almonds and sugar like it’s whipped cream. Sure, she does some Monica Seles-style grunting towards the end, but I have to practically bribe her to take the wooden spoon away from her.
About half-way through the constant stirring, Nonna adds lemon juice. It sizzles and bubbles and splatters. I move away to avoid getting burnt. Nonna just keeps on stirring. I guess if you lived in Sicily through World War II, you’re probably not scared of hot lemon juice…
Finally it’s time to tip the molten brown sugar coated almonds out on to an oiled marble slab. I don’t know how Nonna knows it’s ready. I ask her and she says she knows it’s ready, because it’s ready.
Getting the almonds out is not so easy, as everything’s sticking to everything and it’s hot as Hades. That does not stop Nonna. She uses a range of wooden spoons, palates and a rolling pin to get it how she wants it. Then she dips her hands in cold water and pats it down. I try to mimic her, but my hands actually feel heat, so I give up.
After a sprinkling of not-so-traditional hundreds and thousands, it’s time to cut the thing. Luckily, reinforcements arrive in the form of Mum and Dad, or Lila and Romano. Lila scoffs some stray almonds, leaving the evidence in plain view:
I tell her what Nonna said about her lack of help, she sighs and starts the next lot of torrone. I think she’s used to it. Dad meanwhile takes some very menacing knives off Nonna and starts cutting the torrone into pieces. This requires a fair degree of stamina, and as we have not had coffee for at least an hour, Nonna decides that’s what she should be doing.
Once all the torrone is cut, we make a second lot which is slightly different because it’s made with sesame seeds and assorted nuts. Mum and Dad take the lead this time, but Nonna is always watching, always ready to jump in, always giving instruction and always quick to point out what we’re doing wrong. At one point, she asks no one in particular:
“How on earth are you going to make the torrone when I’m gone?”
The answer to which is, of course, I have no idea.
You will need a marble slab and hands that are not sensitive to heat. It’s also a good idea to share the stirring with a number of people, as it is heavy, hot and difficult.
- 800g sugar
- 1kg whole almonds, blanched
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Hundreds and thousands
- A few sheets of rice paper
- Oil the marble slab and have a bowl of cold water for you to dip your hands in nearby.
- Place the sugar in a large saucepan and stir over low heat until sugar has dissolved.
- Add almonds. Stir with a wooden spoon until the almonds start to stick together.
- Add the lemon juice and continue stirring until the almonds and sugar are golden brown in colour.
- Turn the mixture out onto the marble slab. Dip the palms of your hands in the cold water and then, using your hands, shape the mixture into a square slab. You can also use a rolling pin and wooden spoon
- While the mixture is still warm, sprinkle hundreds and thousands over it, cut the slab into slices, and then into small squares. Place on plates lined with rice paper.