I can't think of nuts without a little ditty from my childhood popping into my head:
Nuts, nuts, I like nuts
If you take them away I'll hate your guts
I like peanuts, I like walnuts, I like some nuts, I like all nuts
So gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme some nuts!
I mean, that kind of covers it, right? Nuts are great, don't touch my nuts, unless...um...okay, never mind.
Anyway, back to nuts. With the holidays approaching, this is a great time to think about spiced nuts. They're the perfect snack to keep family and other guests occupied while you finish the grand meal you have planned. (Need help on that front? We've got advice on how to select and prep ham, crown roast of lamb, beef tenderloin, prime rib, and all sorts of other roasts.) Spiced nuts are also a perfect small gift for a holiday party host—or your coworkers!
Here are three wildly different spiced nut recipes to help break you free from the monotony of many of the recipes out there. I went nuts creating them, and I hope you'll go nuts for them.
Spiced Nut Basics
There are several ways to approach spiced nuts. Some recipes make a glaze with sugar, egg whites, and spices. Some use a fat like butter along with the sugar and flavorings, and others just dust roasted nuts in dry spices. I wanted to explore a few of these methods to see how they affected the finished nuts.
First, I tested the egg whites. It's one of the biggest variables I found in the recipes I researched, some calling for none, some calling for one, some calling for several. I whipped up a handful of batches of nuts where everything was equal except the amount of egg whites.
From left, the above nuts have no egg, one egg per quart of nuts, two eggs per quart, and three eggs per quart. For the no-egg batch, I made a simple syrup, then glazed the nuts in it with spices. The egg-less nuts have the shiniest candy coating, while increasing amounts of egg white make an increasingly airy shell. When I had my colleagues taste the batches,* everyone preferred the single egg white batch, saying that it had a more satisfying texture and crunch than the very airy ones. Given the unanimous preference for the single-white batch, that's what I ended up using in the two recipes here that call for whites.
*Well, each batch except the non-egg one, which went missing from the SE test kitchen before the tasting. I'm going to assume that meant they were popular with someone...
For the third flavor of nuts, a savory blend of olive and rosemary, I wanted a more subtle not-too-sweet glaze, and opted for no whites. As I mentioned above, one way to do that is to make a sugar syrup and then coat the nuts in it before roasting, but I saw other recipes (including one from a trusted cookbook author and TV personality that gets high ratings online) that call for cooking sugar in butter, and then tossing the nuts in that.
Here's what happens when you do that:
Maybe some folks think that globs of sugar that refuse to dissolve in the fat are the makings of a great spiced-nut recipe, but I do not. A caramel coating, and the even glaze it delivers is the way to go.
The third thing I tested was cooking time. I used a moderate 300°F oven, since I wanted a heat that was high enough to give the nuts a roasted flavor, while gentle enough not to give risk over-roasting them—nuts are delicate, and too often spiced nuts have a subtle burnt flavor. I found that for all the nuts I tested (raw almonds, raw cashews, pecans, and walnuts), 30 minutes was about the maximum cooking time at 300°F before they started to cross the line into a flavor that I don't enjoy. If you like a harder roast, you can definitely choose to cook yours for longer.
Here, now, are the three flavors I came up with; I used specific nuts for each flavor, but feel free to switch them up since all flavors will work on all nut types.
Mexican Spiced Chocolate Pecans
Taking a cue from Mexico, I made a blend of brown sugar, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and both warm and hot spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cayenne, etc.).
I whisked that chocolaty sugar-spice blend into an egg white.
Then folded in the pecans.
I spread them on a greased baking sheet and roasted them at 300°F for about 25 minutes.
The finished nuts have a deep chocolate flavor that leans more to dark and bitter than sweet, with a round spice flavor that's followed with just-strong-enough level of heat.
Smoky Candied Almonds
Borrowing their flavor from a barbecue-style dry rub, these almonds are coated in an egg-white-and-brown-sugar glaze that's flavored with smoked paprika, a little Old Bay (for its hit of celery salt and other spices), cayenne for heat, and black pepper.
These have a good salty-sweet balance, with a satisfying smokiness that makes them a great pairing for all kinds of drinks, from beer to bourbon.
This flavor was my biggest stretch, but man did it work. The secret here was my microwave: I used it to dehydrate both the rosemary and some oil-cured black olives, a critically important step.
At first, I attempted to make these with fresh rosemary, but that's not a good idea. Not only does rosemary oxidize quickly once minced, turning it a dark brown color, but no matter how finely you mince it, you'll never get it to the powdery consistency that can really coat the nuts.
Instead of using store-bought dried rosemary, which has been sitting on a shelf for who knows how long, losing flavor all along, I decided to take fresh sprigs and dry them myself. The microwave is brilliant for this.
Just look at these dried sprigs:
They practically look fresh still! To do it, all you have to do is sandwich the fresh sprigs between two sheets of paper towel, then microwave them at full power for one or two minutes. It's important to keep a close eye on them while doing this: it's a short step between drying the rosemary and it igniting in the microwave.
Once dried, I ground the sprigs in my mortar and pestle.
The rosemary quickly becomes a fine powder.
Tapping it through a fine mesh strainer gets out any twiggy bits. See how vibrant that dried rosemary powder is?
I also used the microwave to dehydrate some oil-cured olives. This I do at half power, and it took about five minutes in my microwave for them to dry completely. Once again, it's critical you keep an eye on them while they dry, because they too can burn if not monitored.
They'll seem dry to the touch, but they'll still be loaded with their own natural olive oil. Once you crush them in a mortar, the oil will release, forming a concentrated paste.
I toss the olive paste first with cashews that I've already very lightly glazed in a sugar syrup. They'll be very greasy at this point, thanks to all that olive oil.
The dried rosemary powder, though, will help soak up a good deal of that oil. They'll still be a little oily, but not too much.
The finished nuts are mostly savory, with a salty, herbal kick, but just a hint of that sweet glaze keeps things in balance.
So now that I've shown you my nuts, here's the deal: look, but don't touch. Feel free to touch your own though.