I’ve been working as a consultant on a new restaurant project: it’s cozy and intimate, but with limited staff and a teeny-tiny kitchen where 3 cooks behind the line seems crowded. One of the first things I started to think about was how to have some extra offerings and things I can cross-utilize on the menu that are easy for a prep cook that doubles as the dishwasher to make, have a long shelf life, and are reliably addictive. I’m only helping out a couple days a week, so whatever I put on needs to be simple, and there is just about nothing easier than a solid nut mix.
Little nibbles like this can serve a couple different purposes, they can be:
- Great tossed in a salad for crunch sweetness
- Sold as a stand-alone, mini appetizer, with their salt helping to encourage alcohol sales
- Great additions to combination plates, like cheeseplates and charcuterie platters
Thats a chef’s view. At home, I eat these things like it’s my last day on Earth. It’s one of those snacks where you eat one, say: “Oh yeah that’s really good” and then before you know it you’ve eaten two pounds of nuts and have to change into a pair of stretchy pants. The secret to the addictiveness is the finely tuned flavors, a perfect balance of salty, sweet, aromatic and spicy, one that you can play with and make your own as I’ve done here with maple, rosemary and spices.
And, of course, these things come with me in the car as energy food for when I’m outside on the hunt. Even though they’re a little sweet, they’re nothing compared to the bags of junk food sold as trail mix with all the chocolate and sugary dried fruit, although you will want a water bottle around.
The flavor pairings are where things get interesting here, and also where you need to be careful. Too much butter will make greasy nuts. Too much sugar makes cloying dessert candy. Too much cayenne is too hot, and, too much salt is never good either. As far as experimenting, the most basic method I’ve made uses only maple, cayenne, butter, rosemary and salt, and it’s just fine. Substituting a seasoning that has cayenne in it, like berbere, or my friend’s spice mix they produce in Wisconsin is even better, and you’ll be rewarded for a real treat if you seek some out. Or, play with spices and make your own, smoked paprika mixed 75/25 with cayenne would be great, or add a little cayenne to curry powder. I would cut the recipe in half if you want to be cavalier and experiment though, since experiments are, just that.
Hedging your bet with maple, a natural invert sugar
This isn’t as complicated as it sounds, but technique is important. Part of what makes these so good is the even, crisp coating of sugar. Basically you make a caramel out of melted sugar and butter, the consistency of which needs to be perfectly amalgamated to coat the nuts. Using the maple cuts processed sugar out of the original recipe I modified these from, deepens the flavor. As maple is a sort of invert sugar, it’s also fool-proof for making the caramel syrup since there’s no waiting for sugar to melt and little danger of crystalization, but on the flip side the water in the maple needs to be cooked off and evaporated for the nuts to have the perfect texture and snap when they’re cooled and ready to eat.
Finding the perfect nut blend
I vary the blend of nuts here and there, but know that every nut you add will add a different character to the finished product. The craggy folds of walnuts become super crisp as do pecans, hazelnuts develop a concentrated flavor, and almonds give a good backbone and appeal (I used to have one guest who would make me pick out just almonds for her). If I’m trying to be on a budget, I might add 20-25% peanuts, but they water down the mix a bit, so consider them a last resort.
Spiced Nuts with Maple, Maple Sugar and Rosemary
- 10 cups mixed raw nuts preferably a blend of equal parts almonds, cashews, walnuts and pecans or blanched hazelnuts
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper substituting ½ Tablespoon Tavia spice or berbere is also very good here, but berbere has more heat
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- ½ cup maple syrup
- 3 tablespoons chopped rosemary
- 2 ounces 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon maple sugar optional
- Spread the nuts out on a sheet tray and toast for 5 minutes at 350. Meanwhile, simmer the remaining ingredients together until the maple and butter are melted together, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes more.
- Remove the nuts from the oven and toss well with the melted maple-butter-rosemary mixture and return to the oven and cook 8-10 minutes more, stirring once or twice to ensure even cooking, until the nuts are nicely toasted and aromatic, make sure to watch closely so the nuts don't get too dark.
- Remove the nuts from the oven, sprinkle over the maple sugar if using, then cool and keep at room temperature in a sealed container, a glass jar looks nice on the counter.