After the unfortunate closing of Il Vesco Vino restaurant in St. Paul, I was left without a job, wondering where the heck I would go. As usual though, my Italian training served me well. I found an add on craigslist and did a quick stage (where you work for free in a kitchen for a day) at the D’amico flagship restaurant: D’amico Kitchen, formerly D’amico Cucina. The kitchen started to get busy during my stage, and the executive chef tried to test me a bit by yelling at me to get some fregola sarda, thinking I wouldn’t know what it was. When I returned seconds later with a bag of the giant Sicilian cous-cous, he hired me at near salary to run their pasta station: easy peasy.
The restaurant was a pretty swank spot, it’s in the Chambers Hotel where all the celebrities stay when they came into town for concerts and what have you. Prince came in regularly and would bring in his own serving entourage; our servers couldn’t talk to him. Typically he ordered something drab off menu like steamed chicken and vegetables, meh. I remember Wolfgang Puck stopping by too and touring the kitchen one night, he bought us all drinks, which is always appreciated.
During service, the kitchen was projected online through webcams, and also projected on the side of the entire building via projector, for about 6 hours every night. I remember my grandpa telling me he would watch service occasionally online, which was a cool way for him to see some of the busy antics of a professional kitchen. It was fun at the time, but now I’m glad I don’t have to worry about cameras turning on at 5 o’clock for people to watch me cook incognito.
I was in charge of the pasta station, but of course I needed to see the menu and be cross trained just in case somebody got sick and I needed to fill in for them. The garde manger station, which includes salads, hot appetizers and desserts is not my favorite station to work since it does not have as much hot, in-your-face action as a typical saute, pasta, or grill station, but I have a sweet tooth, and need to stop by to have a snack once and a while. They had this chocolate cake dessert there, the cake was alright, but it had these little candied hazelnuts on it that absolutely blew my mind. Crunchy, salty, sweet, they hit all the right notes. I got scolded more than once for snatching the candied nuts out of their mis en place.
Eventually I just asked one of the pastry chefs for the recipe; she refused to give it to me. No matter how many times I brought it up, she declined. This only annoyed me, and I made a point of sneaking more of nuts, just to stick it to her a little. Eventually I left D’amico, and was recruited to be part of the opening culinary team of a new, much more exciting St. Paul restaurant. I didn’t forget those nuts though!
It took a couple months of searching for recipes and comparing, but I finally found the method they had been using to make those stinkin nuts. Afterwords, I played with the recipe, (which is incredibly easy) and found I could use it to candy any nut in the same way. After I started to use it on other nuts, I began to get bored with original recipe after eating them non stop for months on end. I started to add different things, spices, hot chillis, different sugars like agave or honey, combinations of sorghum, barley malt and mollasses. I made piles of them, and gave the experiments out as presents and gifts.
I’m telling you, every single time people eat these things for the first time, they fall in love, just like I did. I’m using black walnuts here, but you can use any nut or seed you like, the proportions are always the same, although using black walnuts or hazelnuts which have been rubbed of their skin make a particularly delicious croquant. Since there are only a scant few ingredients, it’s really important to use very high quality stuff, get the largest nut meats you can afford, or care to buy. Essentially this is the same method that many candied nut sellers will use at state fairs, where they have huge rotating drums that constantly stir the nuts and sugar to promote even cooking. All I have done is adapt it for the home kitchen Here’s the recipe I recreated, with a couple fun variations to try after you have made the first one.
Salted Black Walnut Croquant
Yield: about 3 cups of candied nuts, which will be gone as soon as they are cool enough to eat-guaranteed
- 2 cups untoasted black walnuts, or another nut of your choice, largest pieces possible, rubbed of their skins . If you can find the time or a supplier that can remove the nut skins for you, it will make a better product, and save you some putsy work.
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or really nice flaked sea salt, you want to use the nicest flaked salt possible here, absolutely do not use table salt, it will not be the same at all.
- In a 2 qt saucepan, heat the nuts and sugar on medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The sugar will start to clump and crystalize, this is normal. After about 5 minutes the sugar should start to melt and change color do a light amber, continue stirring constantly with the wooden spoon to prevent burning, and to encourage even toasting of the nuts. I really cannot stress enough the importance of constantly stirring the nuts, part of the secret to this recipe is the constant stirring.
- Once the sugar is completely melted and dark amber colored, the nuts should smell nice and toasty, but not be burnt. There should be no crystalized sugar coating the nuts, it should be all melted and syrupy. Transfer the nuts immediately to a silpat, or cookie sheet, or other nonstick surface (in a pinch I have even spread them out in a cast iron skillet). Spread the molted hot nut mixture into an even layer, season with the salt while it is still hot and sticky, you don’t want to stir in the salt since it will destroy the individual flakes of salt, making them melt. Afterwords, allow the nuts to cool completely. After the nuts are cool, they will be brittle, and likely in one large, giant hunk. break off small bite size pieces of the croquant and store in an air tight container. The candied nuts will keep for months stored in a cool dark place.
Spicy Black Walnut Croquant
This is the personal favorite of one of my childhood friends, who was a willing sampler of many different variations I made of these nuts.
- Proceed with the Salted Black Walnut Croquant recipe per usual.
- When the sugar is melted, right before you spread the nuts out on the silpat or non-stick surface, season them with 1/4 teaspoon dried chilli of your choice, stirring it in and incorporating completely. Using cayenne is fine. if you are using a nut besides black walnuts, dried chipotle chillis removed of their seeds and ground in a coffee grinder are an excellent addition.
Black Walnut Croquant with Truffled Salt or Smoked Salt
This is a riff using truffled salt or smoked salt, which you can find at many specialty retailers. There are not a ton of uses for truffled salt, but this is a great one. Remember to add it at the end, as heat and cooking can diminish truffle flavor.
Smoked salt is much cheaper than truffle salt, and can be easily made at home with a weber grill and some water-soaked wood chips. Shoot me an email if you want a method for smoking with a charcoal grill, its easy.
- Proceed with the black walnut croquant recipe per usual, substituting 1/4 teaspoon smoked salt or truffled salt for the regular flaked or kosher salt.