Fireplaces, holidays, snow (?) , . . . and nuts. People eat more nuts in winter than other times of year, and not just because they go so well with cozy, indoor socializing. What makes nuts so delicious is their wonderful fats, each distinctively flavored, each delicious in its own way.
To bring out the fullest flavor in fresh nuts, you’ll want to toast them. If you’re a purist, simply heating up a cast-iron skillet for about 5 minutes on medium heat, then tossing the nuts in it until they start to smell really good and develop brown patches, is sufficient. (Be sure to pour them out of the pan as soon as they reach this stage, or they’ll burn: cast-iron skillets do not cool off for a long time after you remove them from the heat.)
If your taste runs to more piquant nuts, here are a few simple treatments from around the world that you can make in minutes. I’ve also included a wonderful microwaved candied nut recipe. I suggest using a cast-iron or carbon-steel wok to avoid the messiness associated with slinging sugar around the stove. Have a greased baking sheet or a big sheet of aluminum foil ready to pour these candied nuts onto immediately.
This recipe has a long and winding road; the version below comes from the late Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Café in San Francisco.
¼ c. white sugar
1 Tbs. kosher salt
2 Tbs. coarsely ground black pepper
1 c. pecans
- Combine sugar, salt, and pepper.
- Heat cast-iron skillet or wok on MEDIUM until hot (about 5 minutes). Add pecans; toss until oils come to surface (about 1 minute).
- Sprinkle nuts with half of sugar-salt-pepper mixture and shake pan until sugar melts (about 1 minute). Add rest of seasoning mixture; continue shaking pan until pecans are coated with melted mixture.
- Immediately turn nuts out onto baking sheet or plate. When they’ve cooled enough to be handled, separate them. Cool completely, then store in an airtight jar or can.
Candied Chestnuts (Juri Ama-ni, Japan)
1 lb. chestnuts, peeled
1 2/3 c. white sugar
2 c. water
- Slice off very bottom of chestnuts so they’re flat. Soak for 30 minutes in cold water to remove bitterness, then drain and dry them.
- Add cold water to a pot deep enough to cover chestnuts; add nuts and bring to boil on HIGH. Reduce heat to LOW after water comes to a boil, and simmer until chestnuts become tender, about 20 minutes.
- Remove pot from heat; pour into sieve or colander, and run cold water over nuts to cool them. When they’ve drained and cooled, return them to pot.
- Put water and sugar in a wok (not nonstick!) or large saucepan on MEDIUM, stir to dissolve sugar, and bring to a boil slowly. Boil until syrup becomes slightly thickened. If foam forms, skim it off.
- Pour sugar syrup into pot over chestnuts, cover with a lid, and simmer on LOW for 10–15 minutes, until nuts are nicely coated. Set pot aside for 24 hours, unrefrigerated. (The high sugar content will prevent any foodborne microorganisms from getting a foothold.)
- If you can bear to wait, simmer the pot’s contents a second time on LOW for 10-15 minutes, and cool again before eating.
Choose Your Own Adventure Spiced Nuts
You can use any nuts you like for this quicky version of candied nuts. Be sure to dry-toast nuts (see above) before you toss with the sugar-olive oil syrup. (The olive oil keeps the nuts and their sugar coating slightly moist instead of crackly.)
¼ c. granulated sugar
¼ c. water
1 Tbs. mild extra-virgin olive oil
1½–2 c. of dry-toasted nuts
Your favorite flavorings*
*The sky’s the limit! You could add ½ tsp. powdered chipotle; 1 tsp. vanilla extract; ½ tsp. powdered cardamom; ½ tsp. powdered wasabi; ½ tsp. hot Spanish paprika (pimentón) . . .
- Put sugar, water, and olive oil in heavy skillet, wok, or saucepan over MEDIUM heat; stir occasionally until mixture comes to a boil, then reduce syrup by about 1/3—the syrup should have become a warm, toasty medium brown.
- Add toasted nuts to mixture, stir in thoroughly, and immediately pour out onto greased baking sheet or aluminum foil. When nuts cool enough to touch, separate them. Cool thoroughly, then store in glass jar or airtight tin.
Barbara Kafka’s Microwaved Peanut Brittle
This is a bulletproof recipe, and so easy to make. Find the original in Kafka’s brilliant Microwave Gourmet (1987).
1 c. white sugar
½ c. light corn syrup*
½ c. water
1½ c. raw peanuts
* We sell corn syrup near the holidays. You can also use agave syrup. Plain corn syrup has been demonized; it’s a simple sugar with a lower glycemic index than white sugar. High fructose corn syrup is a different story!
- Combine sugar, corn syrup, and water in 8-c. tempered-glass measuring cup. Cook, uncovered, at 100% for 3 minutes.
- Remove from oven and stir thoroughly. Add peanuts; stir again. Cover tightly with microwave plastic wrap or porcelain plate that completely covers top and cook at 100% for 15 minutes.
- Lightly coat silicon spatula and large baking sheet or marble slab with vegetable oil. Remove glass cup from microwave; pierce plastic with tip of knife to release steam, and remove plastic carefully or remove plate by facing it away from you.
- Pour nut mixture onto oiled surface. Using spatula, spread nuts to distribute them throughout syrup. Allow brittle to harden. When it’s cooled, break into chunks with rolling pin and store in airtight container.