One of my favorite salad toppers is freshly toasted nuts. And if it’s an extra special occasion (or just a regular evening that you want to turn into something special), the nuts get coated in sugar and even spice. You can buy them like this already (e.g., at Trader Joe’s) and some places have even started marketing them, for example “Meshuga Nuts” (I could not find the link), but I like to buy the raw shelled nuts and make my own to add whatever spices and level of sweetness I fancy on a given day.
This recipe is pretty easy, but does make a little bit of a mess. The nuts are great to snack on and are wonderful as an appetizer, with cheese, or served in pretty little bowls alongside dessert. They also make nice gifts
I find pecans work best because they have nice little grooves that capture all the flavors. Walnuts should work equally as well from this grooved perspective; almonds might not have great grooves, but they are another favorite of mine in salads.
Sugared and Spiced Nuts, some guidelines
Don’t be afraid, there’s a lot of verbiage here and it looks scary, but I’m just walking you through the process and warning you about all of the mistakes that I have made along the way so you won’t make them!
Any nuts will work, but my preference from a texture perspective is pecans. I also like making plain sugared almonds. Any spice mixture will work — experiment on what you prefer. I have listed here my favorite and detailed how I make these nuts in such a way that they do not end up one huge sheet of nut brittle, rather separate nuts with a slightly crumbly spicy-sweet, slightly gritty texture. These are not sticky.
Makes ~2.5 C
1 lb pecans
1/3 C white sugar
1/3 C brown sugar – this helps with the texture, but you can use all white sugar
Basic mild spice mixture:
1/2 t hot chili powder
1 t curry powder
1/2 t cumin
2 T water to help spread spices
I like mine a bit more spicy and sweet and salty, so I added the following (after tasting the initial coating): additional 2 T sugar; 1/2-1 t cayenne pepper; additional 1/2 t curry powde; 2 large pinches kosher salt; additional 1-2 T water to help distribute spices
Prepare foil-lined baking sheet to catch nuts when the are ready to cool.
Dry toast pecans (1 lb) on large skillet set at medium heat. Constantly move skillet around to avoid burning the nuts — this takes about 5-7 minutes.
Add sugars and spices and continue to move the skillet around to help sugar melt and liquify. Adjust your flame/heat between low and medium to your own comfort. Again – do not let the sugar or nuts burn. This can and will set off your smoke alarm (I’ve done it before!) and you might have to throw out the whole batch! You have to watch pretty carefully. One moment you have a pile of sugar and a few spices, the next, a column of smoke. But, with practice, it gets easier. If you add water early, burning is less likely, but I don’t find the texture works out as nicely. So, keep moving the pan/skillet around and eventually the sugar will melt into a nice light brown (very hot – DON’T TOUCH!) liquid.
Coat the nuts evenly with this mixture of sugars and spices in the pan with a non-stick spatula. Don’t worry if the sugar starts to re-crystallize or if the spices haven’t distributed perfectly evenly … that’s what the water is for. Add the 2 T water to essentially deglaze and get all the bits that are stuck to the pan to unstick. This also helps with give the coating the desired texture — a little gritty rather than smooth. BUT, note, when you add the water, it will splatter a bit (see the bits of my stove top that I just couldn’t crop out of the picture…), so stand back.
Allow nuts to cool a bit and taste to see if any additional spices, sugar, etc. is necessary. After tasting, I decided to increase the sugar, spices, and add some salt (as outlined above). Note, the salt enhances the sweetness in the mix (as in fleur de sel caramels). Again, allow the sugar to caramelize and melt as the spices get fragrant. I added 1-2 T water to help distribute the dry ingredients evenly across the nuts.
Spread nuts out evenly on the foil-lined cookie sheet and allow nuts to cool for 5-10 minutes. They should not be sticky.
Nuts can be stored in an airtight container for about a week, but they typically don’t last that long in my home.
OTHER SPICES MIXTURES TO TRY:
– cinnamon, sugar (this is a simple one that can work for Passover)
– cumin, sugar, cayenne or other peppers
These nuts are wonderful on a classic salad of spinach or baby greens, beets (even from a can if you’re in a rush!), pears, pickled onions or regular shallots, and chèvre. Salt, pepper, olive oil, and balsamic to dress.
I’ve also thrown them on a similar salad of whatever I had in the fridge – spinach, apples, and feta. Since the feta is pretty salty, no need to put salt in the dressing. Not as good as the first combo, but the nuts made it taste pretty special.