Friday, August 24, 2012

Nut Brittle

While I generally consider myself an adventurous cook, there are certain areas of the culinary arts that definitely intimidate me.  Therefore, scared off by burnt fingers, scalding hot sugar syrup, and pots and pans that are a nightmare to clean, I have generally steered clear of any type of candy making since my early experimenting days.  But a while ago, as I was walking down the cook’s tools aisle of my local store, my eye kept being drawn to a cute candy thermometer.  Maybe, just maybe, being armed with a gadget, would somehow help me overcome my fears of boiling syrup, I thought to myself.  Who knows, maybe candy making was my true calling, and I had been shirking from it all these years simply because I didn’t have the right tools.  At least, this is what I told  myself as I marched out of that store with a brand new candy thermometer.  
That was over a year ago.  This past week, as I was rummaging through my baking tools searching for some other impulsive purchase made and forgotten long ago, what did I stumble upon?  Yup, you guessed it – the candy thermometer!  There it was, still in its packaging, fading away inside a dark drawer.  Seized by feelings of shame at my own procrastination, I immediately ditched the original recipe that I was going to make, which is just as well, since I didn’t have any butter, which was called for in the recipe.  Instead, I decided, today would be the day to tackle my fears of boiling sugar syrup.

Having made that first bold decision, now I just had to settle on what to make.  I definitely wanted to start with something relatively easy.  And I had already bought a bunch of nuts for the other recipe that I thought I was going to be making that day.  So, with these two constraints, I settled on a nut brittle as the object of my first experiment with the candy thermometer.

After a quick search on the internet, I came across this recipe on Food and Wine.  Now, when one comes across the “Best-ever” anything, why would one search any further?  Besides, I was intrigued by the addition of salt to the brittle in this recipe, as I have always enjoyed the juxtaposition of salt and sweet.  I did feel that it lacked a little something in flavor, so I added a little bit of cardamom, which I think elevated these to something even more special.  I had both pistachio and peanuts on hand, so I used these nuts in two separate halves of the brittle.  

Since this recipe makes quite a large batch, I brought most of it to work to share with colleagues.  If the speed at which these disappeared is any indication of taste, then I think it’s safe to say that these were pretty darn tasty.  (Of course, it could also mean that scientists are particularly voracious brittle eaters, but you can see why I prefer the former interpretation.)  So, I must say, that apart from a few minor incidents involving hot syrup on delicate fingertips and bare toes, my preliminary foray into candy making was a resounding success.  It just goes to show that gadgets, even little ones like candy thermometers, do improve our lives, even if it is to just give us the confidence to try something new.

Recipe (adapted from Food and Wine)
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 stick unsalted butter
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces roasted salted peanuts, cashews, pistachios and/or pecans
6 green cardamom pods, peeled and finely ground
Coarse sea salt - enough to sprinkle lightly over your whole brittle

In a large saucepan, combine sugar, water, corn syrup, butter, and cardamom.  Bring to a boil**. 
Cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the caramel is light brown and registers 300° on a candy thermometer.  This takes between 10 and 15 minutes. 
Remove from heat.  Place pan over a plate or baking tray and carefully stir in the baking soda. The mixture will bubble.
Stir in the nuts*, then immediately scrape the brittle onto a large rimmed, nonstick baking sheet.
Using the back of a large spoon, spread the brittle into a thin, even layer. Sprinkle with salt.
Let cool completely, about 30 minutes. Break the brittle into large shards.

Cook’s Notes
**Do not, and I repeat, do NOT touch the hot syrup with your fingers, lips, tongue, or really, any other body part.  It will stick to your skin and burn you, and no amount of hopping around screaming unholy words will help the sting.
*If you’d like to make two different types of nut brittles, you can simply spread the nuts thickly on two halves of your baking sheet, and pour the hot syrup over the nuts, rather than mixing the nuts into the syrup before pouring.
The brittle should store well at room temperature for up to a month, but I doubt that it will last that long.