Just last week, the doorbell rang and it was my neighbor, dropping off the two pounds of pecans I ordered from her this year. She’s part of some organization that sells beautiful Texas pecan halves as a fund-raiser every December. I thought maybe I’d stick them in the freezer – which is a great way to store nuts, by the way – until I could figure out what to make with them. But when I pulled out the freezer drawer, I found last year’s two pounds still waiting for me to make something out of them.
I do this sort of thing way too often. Good intentions, but apparently my attention span is that of a 6-month-old baby these days. On an almost constant basis, I have to remind myself to stay on task.
So I decided to make something with those pecans RIGHT THEN AND THERE – or at least until I remembered what I was doing before my neighbor rang the doorbell.
In this season of giving and attending parties and informal get-togethers, it’s good to have a little nosh you can give as a hostess gift or dump into a small bowl to accompany a cheese plate and cocktails or a bottle of wine when friends drop by. I turned to one of my best sources for simple dishes and multiple variations thereof: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.
I found the recipe below for spiced nuts, and loved the idea of using garam masala, which is a mixture of ground Indian spices that usually contains peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom, but may also include nutmeg, ginger, and bay leaves. I’ve made my own before, and that’s a fun process that will be something we can talk about in January when we’ve all got a bit more time. I’ve had some from Penzey’s in my pantry for just long enough that I was afraid its pungency was on the way out, so I took the top off the jar and gave the contents a good sniff – the best way to test for the freshness of your herbs and spices. While I’d have liked it to be stronger, it still had a good heady aroma, so I plowed ahead.
I served the results to a gathering of my neighborhood friends, and everyone loved them. And I’ll be taking them to our New Year’s Eve celebration. Instead of cayenne (which Bittman calls for), I used my new favorite source for heat: Aleppo pepper. Aleppo is from Turkey and Syria, so I thought it would pair nicely with the Indian spices, and it’s milder than cayenne, so you can use more. It’s also more flavorful than cayenne – a bit like ancho chile, but with hints of sundried tomato, and the heat builds slowly.
You can store the nuts in an airtight container (like a jar), and I recommend putting them out of sight because they are truly addictive. Bittman says they keep for 2-3 days, but I was still snacking on mine five days later and the flavor and texture showed no signs of deteriorating. Just keep them in a cool area (not the fridge).
I liked the nuts so much I brought another bag of pecans with me to New Jersey, where we’re spending Christmas, and enough of the garam masala to make this recipe again.
Kitchen Goddess note: Shelled nuts of most varieties will keep fine in the freezer for at least a year, and sometimes longer. Put them in a Ziploc bag designed for the freezer, and squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can before you close it. As with many other foods, air is the enemy. If you’re not sure how well your nuts have survived cold storage, taste them. If they’re bad, they’ll taste rancid. If your only complaint is that they taste bland, try toasting them a bit, and all that flavor will come back.
Caramelized Spiced Pecans
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything
2 tablespoons canola oil (any flavorless oil, like peanut or vegetable oil, will do)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound unsalted pecan halves (You can use this recipe with many kinds of nuts; pecans are what I had.)
Heat the oven to 450º. Brush the oil over a large baking sheet.
In a heavy 10-inch skillet, combine the sugar and water and stir over medium-high heat till the sugar is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the spices, and the salt. Stir to combine and add the nuts. Reduce the temperature just enough to keep the liquid at a low boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, or until the liquid gets syrupy.
Turn the heat to low and leave it on while you remove the nuts to the baking sheet. Use a slotted spoon so the syrup will drain off the nuts a bit before you spread them around the sheet. (If they cool off while you are getting them out of the pan, you’ll be stuck – literally – with a big mess.) Once the nuts are out of the pan, turn the heat off.
Roast the nuts 10 minutes, stirring once or twice with a spatula. When you take them out of the oven, let them cool a bit before you touch them, as the sugar coating will be very hot. If any are clumping, you can separate them – after they cool off! – with a spatula.
Serve warm or store airtight at room temperature.
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Now, if I could just remember what I was doing when the doorbell rang...