Monday, July 5, 2010

Walnut Brittle with Orange Zest and Sea Salt

Walnuts, in my opinion, are the undersung heroes of the baking nut family. They lack the Euro-flair of hazelnuts, the blue-blood pedigree "pe-cahns," the visual drama of pistachios, or the sheer sexiness of those pricey little pignolias. But walnuts have their charms, and it's a short-sighted baker who fails to recognize them.

The Latin word for "walnut" is Juglans, which comes from Jupitar glans, which means something like "Jupiter's acorn" ~ a euphemism along the lines of "nut fit for a god." I'm not going to go that far, but I'm fond of walnuts, and I use them quite a bit in my home kitchen and my pastry work.

Walnuts are good right from the bag, tossed onto a bowl of yogurt or cereal, or straight into the mouth. That's fine and all, but it doesn't really allow this nutty little superstar to shine. All over the world, walnut-loving cultures have devised creative ways to enjoy them. Walnuts are preserved in vinegar in England and sugar syrup in Armenia and enjoyed as snacks. Those savvy Italian culinarians turn walnuts into pasta sauce and liqueurs. Walnuts figure prominently in the cuisines of India and the Middle East ~ in both sweet and savory applications.

And we've all heard much lately about the prodigious health benefits of the walnut, but since we'll be making candy here, I won't go too deeply into that ~ it makes me feel a little silly. But it does seem reasonable to mention that (according to the California Walnut Commission) in a quarter cup of walnuts, you can expect to find:
  • 4 grams of protein
  • 2.5 grams of ALA (a source of Omega-3 fatty acid)
  • 2 grams of fiber
  • Magnesium, phosphorus, and various antioxidants
Not too shabby.

So, while I've made brittle with every nut you can think of (and various seeds and crackers and other crunchies), I keep coming back to the walnut. Walnuts are rich and delicious, pair well with myriad other flavors, and are relatively inexpensive ~ which means you can make this candy any time you like . . . as often as you like.

This recipe is one of my rabbit-out-of-a-hat favorites that I go to when I need something very quick and nice for company or consolation. It is fairly impressive and will have complete strangers clutching your forearm, staring into your eyes, and saying in a low and imperative voice, "You simply must give me this recipe."

If you've never cooked with molten sugar before, please do read the recipe notes ~ nothing burns quite like boiling sugar. That said, don't be afraid . . . Set all your ingredients out in advance, prepare your workspace, and go for it. And get ready for contact.

Walnut Brittle with Orange Zest and Sea Salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2/3 cup roughly chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray with nonstick pan spray; set aside.
  2. Place sugar in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and add water; stir once just to moisten sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat but do not stir. 
  3. Allow sugar to cook until light amber in color. If a portion begins to caramelize faster than the rest of the pot, swirl the pot gently but do not stir. Use a pastry brush dipped in water to brush down any sugar crystals that form on the side of the pot.
  4. Meanwhile, toss together walnuts, orange zest, and salt. When sugar is caramelized, add walnuts and give a brief stir to coat nuts with sugar syrup. Pour out onto baking sheet. Carefully, using a towel or oven mitt, tilt the sheet slightly (holding the parchment to anchor it) to allow sugar syrup and nuts to level out. (You can use a spatula, but your brittle may not be crystal clear ~ see Recipe Notes.) Allow to cool completely, then break into pieces and store in an airtight container.
Recipe Notes:
Caution ~ Cuidado! ~ Alert! ~ Warning! I can't emphasize this strongly enough. Boiling sugar is going to burn you (or anyone else who comes into contact with it) worse than boiling water will. Why? Because water cools down on your skin a lot faster than molten sugar does, which means that as long as it sits on your skin, it will keep burning it. You get the picture. So, please, PLEASE, play it safe with this stuff.  
  • It's a terrific idea to use long-handled implements (wooden spoons, heat-proof spatulas) when you're working with hot sugar. Also, you should prepare everything you need in advance so there's no scurrying around. Never, ever touch the surface of cooling brittle with your finger to see if it's set. (Why? If it's not, it will stick to your finger, burning, burning, etc.) If you must check it, lift the pan and touch the bottom. When the bottom is cool, your brittle is ready to break into chunks. 
  • I strongly suggest having a bowl of ice water at the ready. In the event that you do splatter some melted sugar on yourself, dip the offended body part into the water to cool the sugar down immediately. 
  • And finally, I keep my kids out from underfoot when I work with melted sugar. It's way too risky for me to have them there and risk their getting hurt. P.S. My kids are teenagers. 
  • Once you've stirred in the nuts and poured the mixture out onto the baking sheet, move it as little as possible if you want crystal-clear brittle. If you use your spatula to drag and distribute nuts around, it's likely that the sugar will begin to crystallize in your brittle, giving it a cloudy appearance. If this does happen, don't worry about it ~ it won't affect the taste at all, it's sheerly cosmetic.
Check out these other walnut recipes on my to-make list:
Chiles en Nogada (Chilies in Walnut Sauce) at Simply Recipes
Walnut Skordalia at Souvlaki for the Soul
Fesenjan: Persian Pomegranate Walnut Stew at She Simmers
Asparagus and Walnut Phyllo Pie at Closet Cooking
Cauliflower Tagine with Walnut and Mint Couscous

    6 comments:

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you about walnuts -- defintely underrated either for cooking or baking. I love 'em. In fact, I had toasted too many to put in a salad I took to a Fourth party and they're beside me right now for snacking! I just found your blog and I really like it! I'll be back. I hope you'll visit me at http://sprigsofrosemary.blogspot.com.

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    2. Walnuts are my personal favorites---and why I so desperately wanted you to share this brittle recipe (don't like the peanut variety half as well). We're finally at home all day (rare event) so I will have a chance to try this. Can't wait!

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    3. Molten sugar is extremely dangerous if you aren't careful! I melted some candy in the microwave last night. Accidently spilled it on myself and am now suffering from burns on my face, neck, hands and arms. Good thing it didn't get into my eyes. A little bit splattered onto my eyelid as I managed to close my eyes in time. Just saying, be careful with molten sugar as it is extremely hot! And the recipie looks great. :)

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    4. Choi ~ Ouch! :( Yes, molten sugar can create one of the most painful burns in the kitchen. I like to keep a bowl of ice water on hand when I'm working with sugar . . . you need to cool the sugar immediately or it will keep burning as long as it is hot and making contact with your skin. Some pastry chefs wear pastry gloves and goggles when they're working with a really involved project. I can understand why.

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    5. I was looking to make a recipe with walnuts and sweetness...and the orange zest brought your recipe to my attention ;o)

      Thanks for sharing this delight with us.
      Flavourful wishes,
      Claudia

      ReplyDelete
    6. Thanks for sharing this delight with us.

      ReplyDelete

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