baking holidays writing

The Perfect Crunch

17 December 2010


[Cranberry ‘jellies’, December 2010.]

I’m a big fan of homemade gifts. BIG fan (this is lucky for me, because I’ve heard some elves in Maine have been busily working away on special treats). For someone to take the time to make me something with his or her own hands — note: this also applies to things like dinner, preferably some sort of delicious vegetable soup or vegetarian soft tacos laden with from-scratch guacamole. Ahem. — means the world to me. If I haven’t mentioned before, it’s these things that make me happiest: a container of cookies sent across the country; a birthday cake by an inexperienced baker (it turned out beautifully); the gorgeous wooden cutting boards my brother made for me a few years ago. I love a pretty new shirt, too, of course, but there’s something about the homemade … Am I right?

So it should come as no surprise that I’m deep in the process of organizing my own offerings. Already I’ve made: Meyer lemon butter cookies, upside-down cranberry cake, chocolate truffles, sesame seed cookies, many, many batches of candy — these were both for my NPR Kitchen Window piece about homemade candy (story and a plethora of recipes here) and for gifts. My grandma received a few of the cranberry ‘jellies’ (you cook cranberries and pears together along with a lot of sugar and some pectin, and somehow it miraculously comes together to make sweet, fruit-infused little candies … oh, but you can read all about that here), the coffee-pistachio toffee has been distributed near and far (and I’m making another batch later today), along with my usual handmade holiday cards. I like to say it’s a sickness, this baking/candy-making/DIY thing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Oh, it’s so soon. SO soon. I really can’t wait.

But before I wrap up the last plate of cookies and present it to my beloveds on the morning of the 25th, I have something very important to do: make cocoa-dusted, sea salted, roasted hazelnuts. I’ve been holding on to this recipe for over a year, if you can believe it, and there’s really no good reason for it because it’s a) incredible b) easy c) VERY GOOD d) perfect for holiday gifts. It comes via Joy the Baker and it came to me because here in San Francisco there’s a fancy chocolatier called Recchiuti who makes all sorts of delectables such as s’mores, interesting little truffles and caramels (some with lavender, even), chocolate sauces, and these to-die-for cocoa-dusted almonds that sparkle with crisp salt and are absolutely addictive. I’ve sent them to New England, brought them home to Sonoma County, and even mailed them away over-the-sea if that gives you any indication of how good they are. I do not fool around with my packages; each one is carefully thought-out, tailored specifically to its recipient, and all components thoroughly tested before it slips into the mail box.

So basically I was (nearly) bankrupting myself by buying and distributing these addictive roasted nuts and I realized I needed to rein it in a bit. Fortunately, I realized this right around the holidays last year which meant I certainly had to make them myself, or at least a version of them. So I did. I used hazelnuts, because my mom loves hazelnuts (as do I), and just regular old cocoa powder (so perhaps they were not quite as exotic as Recchiuti’s — no matter), but yeah: they turned out pretty great, salty-sweet and with a perfect crunch. I’m sorry I’ve kept them to myself for so long (it’s just that I sort of forgot once the flurry of December was over); so, in the spirit of the season, here is my recipe, adapted to fit my own particular wonts, though of course you could do almonds instead, or a mixture, or or or. Whatever you do, I think these will absolutely satisfy. They’re on schedule to be made next week, and if I had more time today (and/or more oven space) I’d make them now, immediately, no kidding.

Next week: lemon cream pie, upside-down cranberry cake, more cookies, and why my PG&E bill will be higher this month than for any other during the year.

Salted, Cocao-ed, and Roasted Hazelnuts, adapted from Joy the Baker

3 cups hazelnuts
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 teaspoon sea salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place a rack in the center. Spread nuts out on a half sheet pan (17x12x1-inch). Toast nuts for 10 minutes. Remove from the sheet pan and set aside. Note: If your hazelnuts still have skins, the may loosen and begin to peel. You may go through the nuts with your hands and loosen and remove any peels that might be ready to come off if you like.

Scatter the butter pieces over sheet pan and place in the oven to melt. This should only take a few minutes. Remove the pan as soon as the butter is melted.

With a mixer, beat the egg whites until they just start to hold their shape, then gradually add the sugar and continue to whisk on medium-high for two minutes. The mixture will be sticky and shiny, but may be a bit thinner than meringue.

Sift the cocoa over the top of the beaten eggs and fold in. Pour the chocolate mixture over the toasted nuts and fold in.

Spoon the coated nuts on top of the butter on the baking sheep. Spread out into an even layer.

Bake nuts for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and quickly stir a bit. Return to the oven for 10 minutes, remove and stir once again. The meringue will look like it’s drying out a bit. Add the salt. Sprinkle it on top of the meringue and nuts. Return to the oven for a final 10 minutes, remove and give it one final stir, breaking the nuts up a bit as you stir them.

When done, the butter should be absorbed and the nuts and coating crisp. Let cool completely before handling. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

  • Jess @ ThisIsWhatIAte 4 January 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Hey! Popping in from Boston to tell you that every single picture I’ve seen of your star-shaped jelly candies are beautiful and make me so happy. Someday soon I’m going to have to attempt them myself, just to stare at their sparkly, shiny tops.

  • John C Abell 17 December 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Some girls get all the from-scratch guacamole.