In France, it would be perfectly natural to serve a big bowl of walnuts with a little apéritif before dinner. But at times, gilding the lily is half the fun. This recipe is a cross between candied nuts from street carts you get piping hot in wintertime, and a brittle. Quatre épices is a traditional French blend of spices made from cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper (ginger can be traded for the cinnamon, but I think the cinnamon works best for this recipe). The blend has the spice of the pepper and the smoky sweet heat of gingerbread spices that are warming and almost exotic. Combined with the sweetness of the crisp burnt sugar that encases the walnuts and salty, crunchy almonds like amber, it's the perfect match.
France is a nut-eating country. Almonds hang from the twigs of Provence, and the walnuts from Grenoble are famous and have an AOC. designation, ranking them amongst the consecrated wines and cheeses of France. When we're in Grenoble, there's always a basket of them in the kitchen, and we spend every afternoon sitting on the terrace in the heat, cracking shells, plucking the husks away from the woodsy, almost sweet, crunchy yet yielding flesh. Growing up, there was always an enormous jar of whole, shell-on walnuts in the pantry, with the nutcracker thrown in to expedite the shucking. Maman was never more than a few rooms away from those and her sacred almonds.
I will warn you ahead of time that these nuts are dangerously addictive. Not only do they lack the daunting outer shell of the walnuts in Maman's pantry, but they're also covered in sweet and spicy sugar. You may choose to serve them as an apéro, or as a counterpoint on a post-dinner cheese plate. I personally choose them for late night squirreling.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup roasted, salted almonds
- 1 1/2 cups walnut halves
In a nonstick pan, combine the sugar and the water. Bring to a boil. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
When the water and sugar mixture begins to turn slightly golden, add the salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper. Stir in the almonds and the walnuts so that everything is combined.
Lower the heat to medium, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the caramel from burning, and keep turning the nuts continuously until the water and sugar have reduced to a thick syrup that coats the nuts. At this point, the mixture will be golden brown.
Using a silicone spatula, spoon the nuts onto the prepared lined and lightly greased baking sheet. Spread them in a single layer, and leave to cool complete. Do NOT touch the hot nuts, as boiling sugar will burn.
When the candied nuts have completely cooled, separate them with your hands, and sneak at least one handful for yourself before sealing them away in an airtight jar to be plundered by everyone else.