Contrast is one of the most important factors in good cooking, and desserts are no exception. While there's certainly a place for uniformly creamy dishes—who wouldn't love to dig into a goblet of airy chocolate mousse right now?—so many sweet treats can be improved with a little crunch, and nuts are the obvious addition to do it. Add them in the form of a topping, as in our caramel honeycomb with salted peanuts or our Texas sheet cake topped with pecans. But if fall weather awakens a craving in you for that earthy flavor nuts provide, try a dessert that uses them as a core component, like a honey-vanilla almond cake or wild hickory nut shortbread cookies. Here are 16 recipes to whet your appetite.
The nutty flavor and almost sandy texture in these crisp-tender Christmas cookies come from ground toasted nuts—almonds are traditional, but other nuts work, too. It's not a snowball cookie without a generous dusting of powdered sugar, and we've found that the key to an even coating is to roll the cookies in sugar twice, so the first layer melts into a glaze that helps the second coat stick.
Crispy Citrus-Candied Pistachios
The Fresh Lemon Syrup devised by Stella is a terrific start to an extra-lemony lemonade, but there are a million other uses for it—for example, coating these lightly citrusy candied pistachios. Because the syrup is mostly sugar, the nuts take on a satisfyingly crispy shell when toasted. A layer of powdered sugar applied after toasting keeps them from clumping. Eat the pistachios on their own as a snack, or use them as a pretty garnish for fruit desserts.
Moist and Chewy Lebkuchen (German Spiced Christmas Cookies)
If you prefer the warm, spicy flavor of gingerbread cookies to their crispy texture, you've got to try German lebkuchen, which pack similar flavors into moist, chewy bars. The dough here is made with ground hazelnuts and almond meal, sweetened with honey and brown sugar, and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, crystallized ginger, and more. A pure white glaze spiked with kirsch tops the bars off.
Sweet Mooncakes With Spiced Walnut and Red Bean Filling
The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival incorporates lots of traditional foods, but none is more iconic than the mooncake. Whether you're celebrating the festival or not, with a little effort (okay, a lot), you can make your own mooncakes at home that are leagues better than anything you can find in a store. These round, deep-golden cakes are stuffed with spiced walnuts and sweet red bean paste, then coated with an egg wash that leaves them with a shiny glaze.
Chocolate-Coated Caramel Honeycomb With Salted Peanuts
The name is a bit misleading, since the recipe doesn't include any actual honeycomb. Instead, it's a reference to consistency and appearance: When you combine caramel with baking soda, it bubbles up to form an aerated, light golden candy that looks a bit like honeycomb. Once it sets, pour on melted chocolate, sprinkle on crunchy peanuts, and break off a piece as you would with peanut brittle. It takes just half an hour to make, but looks way more impressive than that.
Easy, Light, and Tender Honey-Vanilla Almond Cake
Almond flour furnishes the nutty flavor in this surprisingly fluffy gluten-free cake—you can buy the flour, of course, but grinding your own at home yields the best results. The key to the cake's lightness is whipping room-temperature egg whites with just a couple of drops of lemon juice, creating a stable foam to keep the cake airy even after baking.
French Madeleines With Almonds and Apricot Glaze
They do require a special pan, but beyond that, there's not much to making these fancy-looking madeleines. Brown butter and almond extract flavor the simple batter, which whips up easily without aid from an electric mixer. Before baking them, we top the madeleines with shaved almonds; afterward, they're coated with a fruity apricot glaze.
The Best Apple Crisp
The combination of soft, sweet fruit and crunchy crumb is what makes apple crisp so good, though, to be honest, the latter has always been my favorite part. This recipe focuses most of your effort on building a crumb of contrasting flavors and textures, using good butter, raw sugar for its molasses-like flavor, lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, and nuts. Pecans are our nut of choice for crisp toppings, and don't forget to toast them.
Easy Stovetop Fruit Crisp
Fruit crisps work just as well on the stovetop as they do in the oven, though the process is slightly different. Rather than layer everything together before cooking, you'll prepare the fruit and topping separately, and toast the streusel to give it a crunchy consistency. We used hazelnuts in the topping here, but pecans, almonds, or walnuts will do fine; apples, pears, apricots, and peaches can all substitute for the red plums we call for.
Apple-Pecan Bourbon-Caramel Pie
For those who can't choose between apple pie and pecan pie, this hybrid dessert gives you the best of two wonderful worlds, with the sweet, corn-syrupy pecan layer complementing the tart and fruity apples. But just because it's a double pie doesn't mean it's double the work: Simply blind-bake the crust, then pour in the cooked apples and bourbon-pecan caramel, let cool, and serve.
Wild Hickory Nut Shortbread Cookies
Wild nuts can be incredibly flavorful, and wild shagbark hickory nuts are particularly buttery and sweet, even when raw. If you can find them, you'll want to show them off, and these simple shortbread cookies let the nuts stand out. Not planning on doing any foraging this fall? Store-bought pecans won't have the same effect, but they'll still make a nice cookie.
No-Bake Super-Chewy Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Oat Bars
Oatmeal bars are a satisfying and conveniently portable snack that's far better made at home. Ours combine rich, nutty peanut butter and crunchy chopped peanuts to make a bar that feels like dessert, but isn't too sweet. The chewy texture—which, in our experience, is the trickiest part of homemade oat bars to get right—is helped along by melted marshmallows.
Texas Sheet Cake
Recipes for this old-school dessert vary, but it generally consists of a thin chocolate buttermilk cake, a layer of chocolate icing (you can make it thicker if you're an icing fanatic, like I am), and toasted pecans. Buttermilk in both the cake and the icing provides a little tangy balance, keeping the dessert from getting cloyingly sweet.
Maple Walnut Ice Cream
Nuts' role in ice cream doesn't have to be limited to a mix-in. This maple walnut ice cream is nutty in its own right, because we steep chopped walnuts into the base before churning. Since those nuts will lose their flavor and texture, use freshly chopped ones to mix into the ice cream for texture.
Browned Butter Pecan Ice Cream
It's one of the many sad truths of supermarket ice cream: Most commercial butter pecan varieties don't really taste like butter or pecans. Steeping pecans in the base, as with the above maple walnut recipe, and browning the butter before incorporating give this ice cream a heavy dose of both flavors. We sweeten it with raw sugar for a little extra depth.
Peanut and Coke Sorbet
Because it's got so much fat and protein, peanut butter is one of our favorite choices for adding body to a dairy-free ice cream. Here, we put it to work in a sorbet inspired by the classic (but disappearing) Southern combination of salted peanuts and Coca-Cola. The peanut butter leaves the ice cream abundantly smooth and creamy, allowing you to cut out the real cream entirely and let the flavors of peanuts and Coke predominate.