by Matt Card
While I’d like to say I’m on board with Rapha’s Festive 500 challenge, I’ll be lucky to ride half of that—and much of it will be on rollers in the basement during pre-dawn hours. My next two weeks will be tied up with the usual holiday distractions, entertaining, and lots of time in the kitchen. I’ll be baking the usual Christmas cookies and cooking holiday dinners, as well as making a handful of snacks to keep on hand for everyone that will be coming through. Two of the more popular choices include candied, spiced nuts and caramel corn.
With a buttery nut base, sugary shell, and a host of warm spices and fiery cayenne, spiced pecans hit all the right buttons. Certain friends call these “crack nuts”—and request them often. While they are good with any number of malty holiday ales or single malts, I also like them about two hours into a cold, winter ride chased with a bottle of hot tea.
The nuts come together quickly, but as with most successful recipes, the devil is in the details. For the best results, its important to first toast the nuts to intensify their flavor. Its possible to toast nuts on the stovetop, but the more moderate, even heat of the oven is better. Do, however, remember to check them frequently (Don’t let out of sight be out of mind); burned nuts are an inexpensive mistake.
Once toasted, the nuts are coated in a sticky syrup of sugar, bourbon, and vanilla before being tossed in a sweet and savory mixture of cayenne pepper, smoked paprika (pimenton), paprika, black pepper, cinnamon, and clove. The combination of bourbon and vanilla round out the nut’s flavor and boosts that of the cinnamon and clove. I usually make the nuts with enough cayenne pepper that my six-year-old can’t eat them, but I think he’s building up a tolerance as he now inhales every batch I make. I’ll leave the heat level to you, though I do think the hotter, the better.
The trick with any successful snack product is combining flavors and textures in such a manner as to generate obsession. Salty, butter-coated crisp-crunchy popcorn does that exceedingly well. Add a bittersweet, vanilla-flavored caramel and crunchy nuts to the mix and you get perhaps the world’s most addictive snack.
Caramel corn is easy to make, once that is, you get down the basics of making caramel. The longer the sugar cooks and the deeper it browns, the richer its flavor grows—to a point. Cooked beyond a glossy golden brown, about the color of a new penny, the sugar will burn and turn quite bitter (There’s a five-degree window in which the caramel is ideal). Adding baking soda prompts the mixture to bubble and thin out enough to coat the popcorn in an even, thin, glossy coat. It’s hot stuff, so be careful—use kitchen mitts and a broad-bladed, heat-safe rubber spatula to combine the mixture. For the best flavor, be generous with coarse salt (kosher works well, though crunchy, flaky Maldon salt is an even better choice). Salt both magnifies the caramel’s flavor and tempers its sweetness.
If you feel like gilding the lily, add a handful of chopped chocolate or chocolate chips—bittersweet or milk chocolate–to the freshly caramel-coated corn. To make sure the chocolate sticks to the corn and doesn’t melt too much, I recommend sliding the pan into the freezer to firm up.
Sweet Spiced Pecans
Makes 1 pound
If you don’t have bourbon, whiskey or cognac will do. Be sure to use a heat-proof rubber spatula; Le Creuset makes a particularly durable version. In step 3, be sure to combine syrup ingredients well. The bourbon can ignite if exposed to an open flame. The nuts store well in an airtight container (though chances are they won’t be around very long).
2 tablespoons brown sugar
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon paprika
1 ½ to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound whole pecans
¼ cup bourbon (or other liquor, see headnote)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons water
½ cup granulated sugar
1. for the spice mix: combine all ingredients in small bowl and set aside.
2. for the nuts: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts out in single layer on large rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and lightly toasted 12-18 minutes. Cool nuts to room temperature.
3. Combine bourbon, vanilla, water, and sugar in large nonstick skillet. Stirring occasionally, cook over medium-high heat until large bubbles form, and syrup is just coating bottom of pan in thin sheet, 3 to 6 minutes. With large heat-safe rubber spatula, stir in nuts and cook until nuts are thoroughly coated in syrup. Reduce heat to low, sprinkle spice mixture over top of nuts, and stir constantly until nuts are evenly coated in spices and have taken on a matte appearance, 2 to 5 minutes. Transfer to parchment-paper lined baking sheet and cool.
Serves 4 to 8
If you don’t own a 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven, a large skillet may be used, though it will be tricky to coat popcorn evenly with caramel. There’s a slight learning curve to making caramel. And its dangerously hot, so pay close attention to what you’re doing. The corn is best when consumed within a day of preparation (It stales quickly).
1 tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
6 tablespoons popcorn
1 1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 cup hazelnuts or pecans, toasted, and chopped fine
1. Heat oil in Dutch oven over high heat; swirl to coat pan bottom. Once smoking, add popcorn in single layer, cover, and cook until all popcorn has popped, shaking pan occasionally for even cooking. Transfer popcorn to rimmed baking sheet to cool. Remove and discard any unpopped kernels.
2. Add sugar, vanilla, water, and butter to Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Cook covered for 5 minutes, then uncover. Whisking occasionally, cook until mixture is thick and tan colored, 4 to 7 minutes longer (depending on Dutch oven, times will vary a good deal). Reduce heat to low and cook until mixture is glossy golden brown. Remove from heat and whisk in baking soda (mixture will bubble up). Immediately stir in popcorn, nuts, and salt to taste with large-bladed rubber spatula and stir constantly until popcorn mixture is evenly coated in caramel. Carefully transfer to rimmed baking sheet and spread into single layer. As mixture cools, break apart into pieces (adding additional salt if desired). Serve or store in airtight container.