Saturday, December 20, 2014

Salted Caramel Nuts...Lessons From the Contessa

Just like Holidays are supposed to be, life has been busy but I've been trying to BE present in addition to planning for presents!  If you are interested in cooking, there are always recipes that catch your eye and you just know that you HAVE to try them. I follow Ina Garten on social media and her recipes are some of my favorites -- simply elegant with wonderful flavors. (It doesn't hurt that she looks like she actually eats what she cooks, is gracious, and unabashedly loves her husband.)
I have previously mentioned that we wound up with a large quantity of walnuts and almonds, and they keep amazingly well in the freezer. A good rule of thumb here is that "if it has oil, it will spoil." Nuts are full of healthy oils, and if you have some that will not get used immediately, put them in freezer bags and allow them to warm to room temperature before using.
The picture of The Barefoot Contessa's "Salted Caramel Nuts" was too beautiful not to catch my eye as I broke one of the big rules of sleeping well and was perusing Facebook before bed. Realizing that we had all of the very simple ingredients, it was all I could do not to get up and go to the kitchen to make them. So, I compromised and took the walnuts, pecans, and almonds out of the freezer to warm.
Although I usually post my own recipes, I learned a great deal from making these, and wanted to share my experience with you. The result is an amazing sweet/salty/crunchy treat that is a nice change or compliment to the dozens of cookies that get baked this time of year.
To start off, here is the link to the recipe -

Seriously, if you don't already follow her on social media, I highly recommend it. Her recipes are diverse and terrific, and even if they are not to your taste I guarantee that they will inspire you to broaden your scope of cooking skills.

Now, here is what I learned...

Salted Caramel Nuts

4 cups (total) of nuts, inclusive of Almonds (I used raw), Cashews (I used roasted whole ones with sea salt), Pecan Halves (I used raw, as they are plentiful here in the south!), and Walnuts (I used raw)
~ Toast the nuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment in a 350-degree oven for 7-8 minutes. You will know when they are done because they will start to smell wonderful. Remove them from the oven and let them cool. After they cooled, I put them in a bowl and left the parchment on the baking sheet.  
~ Put the 1.5 cups of sugar and 1/4 cup water in a good sized sauté pan (remember, you are going to have to put the nuts in it later). Cook over medium high heat until the sugar has melted, stirring as needed.  
Here's what mine looked like. (FYI - I used a 10' saucier pan, that came with a set, and it was great for this recipe)

~ Put the spoon away, because at this point, you are going to quit stirring it. This is the part that made me realize that I had to share my experience with y'all. Start swirling the mixture in the pan over medium/high heat and don't stir.
Swirl a little at first and more often as it gets to a light golden brown - at the end you should be swirling it constantly.
In the recipe, she mentions that it will look like it is crystalizing. She is right - here's what that looks like:

~ The mixture even got a little bit solid and I was certain that it was crystalizing. I just got "schooled" by the Contessa, and this is where you have to take her at her word, keep swirling. Just after this picture was taken, it melted into the most beautiful warm, clear, golden caramel liquid, and I actually cheered out loud! 
UPDATE - After making this again today, I decided to use a more aggressive "medium high" heat and did not have the above issues. I have a gas stove and did the first batch on "5" which is hot for my stove. Today's batch I cooked on "6" and it caramelized beautifully.  Either way, keep swirling!
Here's the picture I took when I finished cheering:

~ Confession, I didn't actually stir it, but just before taking the above picture, I pushed the sugar that had crystalized on the side of the pan into the bottom with a spatula and let it melt into the liquid caramel which didn't take very long. I "swirled" while it melted.  
~ Turn off the heat and add the 2 tsp of vanilla. It's going to bubble and "spit" a little bit. Keep swirling until the vanilla works into the caramel. 
~ Here is where you've got to work quickly because the caramel is going to start to harden. Put the nuts into the caramel mixture along with the kosher salt and start mixing with 2 large spoons or 2 heavy rubber spatulas. I think that with the next batch I will keep it over a low heat while I mix to ensure even coating.  UPDATE - On the second batch, I put the pan back on the lowest heat burner while I mixed, still mixing quickly and got much better coverage.  
~ Turn it out onto the baking sheet lined with parchment. I just used the same one I had used to roast the nuts.
~The recipe says to "pull" it out at this point, and mine was starting to harden pretty fast, so I happened to have another sheet of parchment handy and used it to press it out. It is molten lava - kind of hot - so be very careful. I quickly pressed it out with the other parchment paper, and although it was a bit thicker than the original photos, when it cools and is broken into bite sized pieces it worked fine.

~ Sprinkle the top with sea salt and let it cool completely and break into pieces and store in airtight container.

Late night last notes - Tonight was our city's Christmas parade. It literally rained on our parade. Tradition holds that after the parade some of our neighbors gather for a late dinner at one of the oldest  family owned Italian restaurants in town.  Knowing that everyone would be soaked by the rain and tired from walking and throwing beads and candy, I brought these treats along. The best compliments that any cook or recipe can get is for all of it to be gone, and for the sweet owners of the restaurant to ask for the recipe.  Hmmm, now that I think of it, I probably should have asked for their marinara recipe as well!  The beautiful salted caramel nuts are gone, and I'm back where I started ... maybe I will go to the kitchen and pull the Walnuts and Pecans from the freezer. 
Wishing you all a warm, safe, and joyous holiday!