Our friend Ben was here last week. He arrived on Thursday, just in time for lunch, and flew out early Tuesday morning. Even June misses him, I think. She got into the habit of standing at the top of the basement stairs – our guest room is down there, a dungeon with red deep-pile carpet and faux wood paneling and an enormous oil furnace that’s as loud as a train – and yelling, Beh! Beh! Beh! until he came upstairs. We all agree that his trip was too short, but he did stay long enough to play a ukulele duet with Brandon, to get a kiss from June, to make me a Boulevardier and a great steak, to help us host a giant holiday party at Delancey and Essex for a chef friend and the staff of her four restaurants, and to eat the majority of a quart of sweet-hot spiced nuts that I made the night before he arrived.
I wasn’t planning to post about these nuts. I figured you’re probably all Christmas-baking-ed out, or maybe you already have a spiced nut recipe that you like, or, I don’t know, who really eats spiced nuts? This admission will no doubt mark me as an empty, soulless person, but I always thought of spiced nuts as the kind of holiday gift you don’t actually eat. Right? No? You admire the packaging, and you’re touched that someone gave them to you, but you never actually feel moved to eat them? I only made this recipe because I did my holiday baking this year with my niece Hillary, and she suggested it. Hillary is an excellent cook and eater, and I knew she wouldn’t lead me astray. So we made a double batch, and a week later, my half has been entirely eaten. From now on, I defer to Hillary.
Of course, because I didn’t plan to write about them, I only thought to photograph the nuts once they were almost gone, at a moment when I was eating a fistful of them out of a plastic storage container while standing next to the sink piled with dirty dishes, drinking an afternoon cup of PG Tips. Still, I hope you get the idea: they’re toasty and crunchy, coated with a crackly layer of caramelized sugar and spices and just enough salt to land them on the savory side of the fence, and though they’re intended to be eaten with a cocktail, they go with anything. PG Tips. Plain water. Boozed-up egg nog. Saliva. Between me and Ben – I’m not sure Brandon even got to taste them – we ate so much that I could only give them to a couple of friends before they disappeared.
The recipe comes from the bar at Gramercy Tavern. Hillary lived in New York until recently, and she had eaten them there and remembered how good they were. So she dug up the recipe online, and between my spice drawer and a trip to the store for nuts, we pulled together the ingredients. The nuts are easy to make: you stir together sugar, salt, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, ginger, black pepper, and nutmeg, and then you stir that mixture into a bowl of almonds, pecans, and cashews, along with a little simple syrup, a little oil, and the smallest amount of corn syrup. (Not to be confused with high-fructose corn syrup – though if you don’t want to use corn syrup at all, I’ll bet honey would be a fine substitute.) If you taste the spiced nuts in their raw state, you will probably not be pleased: they are much spicier before you bake them than after. (And if anyone can explain why that is so, I would be grateful.) They are spicy(!!!) spiced nuts. But once the spices toast and meld with the sugar and the mixture turns to caramel, the heat fades to a humming warmth, and the sugar and salt strike an amicable balance, and then, boom, they’re gone.
This recipe uses two different kinds of salt. I don’t know why, although I’m guessing that the different salts coat the nuts differently? In any case, my kosher salt is Diamond Crystal brand, and that’s important to note, because it’s significantly less salty than Morton brand kosher salt. If you have Morton (or another brand), you’ll want to use much less than the 1 tablespoon this recipe calls for. I’d suggest about 1 ½ teaspoons.
Also, to make simple syrup, combine equal parts sugar and water in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer, stir until the sugar dissolves, and then take it off the heat and allow it to cool. (To be honest, though, I didn’t allow mine to cool; I made it just before using and only cooled it for a few minutes.)
Last, the original version of this recipe uses volume measurements, and I forgot to convert them to weight measurements when I made it. I know, I know; I usually give you both types of measurements, and I, myself, prefer weight. I am sad. Apologies.
Preheat the oven to 300˚F.
Spread the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Immediately transfer to a plate, and set aside to cool.
While the almonds toast, make the spice mix. Combine the sugar, salts, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, ginger, black pepper, and nutmeg in a small bowl. Stir to mix.
Reduce the oven temperature to 275˚F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine the almonds, pecans, and cashews. Toss to mix. Add the simple syrup, corn syrup, and grapeseed oil, and stir to coat the nuts. Add the spice mix, and toss gently until the nuts are evenly coated. Spread on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until the spice mixture is caramelized and the nuts are toasted, about 25-40 minutes. To check for doneness, take a few nuts out of the oven and let cool for a few minutes; if done, they should be dry to the touch.
Cool completely; then store in an airtight container. (The original recipe says that the nuts should keep at room temperature for a week, but I’d guess that they’ll keep longer than that. Two weeks, easy.)
Yield: about 4 cups