Editor’s note: Cook Like a Chef is a feature designed to help you master cooking techniques that will give your homemade meals professional style and carefully crafted flavor. Each month, a chef instructor from Cascade Culinary Institute at Central Oregon Community College walks us through a skill or recipe.
The holidays are a nutty time of year, in more ways than one.
With all of the parties and family gatherings, it’s the perfect season to master a few cooking techniques that will result in perfectly toasted nuts for brittles and snacks.
Cascade Culinary Institute chef instructors Thor Erickson and Laura Hagen are teaching us how to toast, skin and store nuts. We’ll make two recipes: classic hazelnut brittle and sweet and savory Oaxacan (“waa-HA-kun”) nuts with cinnamon, chocolate and a zing of cayenne pepper.
“The Oaxacan nuts are a great thing when guests come in out of the cold. It’s something to have with a cocktail — spicy with enough sweetness to go with the spices and salt. It’s an impressive homemade item,” Erickson said.
Both of the nut recipes can be made ahead, and they store well, so they make great gifts. Just package them in cellophane bags and tie them with festive ribbons.
Before we start cooking, let’s delve into how chefs buy, toast, skin and store nuts.
Buy hazelnuts that are shelled but still have the skin on. You can buy half-pound or pound-size bags of hazelnuts. After you roast them and skin them, they’re ready for cooking or storing. Hazelnuts are the only nuts that should always be skinned.
“The skin is a little bitter, and you don’t want the skin flecks in recipes, since texturally it can be a little weird,” Erickson said.
Erickson told us he always has toasted nuts at home for a variety of uses.
“We’ll roast a batch and add a few to a smoothie, for instance,” Erickson said.
Spread nuts in one layer on a sheet pan and toast them in a preheated 350-degree to 375-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, without stirring.
Make sure there’s some room around the nuts; don’t crowd them.
“Overcrowding creates steam instead of dry heat,” said Erickson.
Watch the nuts carefully and check them at 10 minutes. If you smell that wonderful toasty nut aroma, see the skins flaking, and some browning, they’re done.
Take the toasted hazelnuts out of the oven and immediately put them in a clean terrycloth dishtowel. Put the towel-wrapped nuts onto another pan or plate, and wrap the towel over the top to steam the nuts. Allow them to cool to room temperature.
“Open the towel, and with a circular motion with your hand, all the skin will come off. Your hazelnuts are ready to use,” said Erickson.
Store cool, toasted nuts in a jar or Tupperware-style container in the pantry, not in the refrigerator, where they may absorb other flavors. Freeze nuts in a zip-top plastic bag with the air pressed out for up to six months.
Making nut brittle is a fun, old-fashioned activity.
“Candy is a treat, and we don’t necessarily have homemade candy all the time, so I think the holidays are a good time to do that,” said Laura Hagen, chef instructor and certified pastry chef.
Hagen told us that candy making is a little tricky because temperatures have to be exact, and you’re working with high heat.
“You’re working with molten sugar, so you have to be extremely careful how you handle it, and be careful in the kitchen with it,” she said.
As you’ll see in the nut brittle recipe, as you boil the sugar and water, you should wash the sides of the pan down with a pastry brush and water so the sugar doesn’t burn on the sides of the pan.
When the sugar mixture is ready to be poured onto an oiled slab of granite or marble, or onto a sheet pan lined with a silicon baking mat, be ready to move quickly.
“Pouring out the hot brittle mixture is fun and can be a little frantic too, because it cools off so quickly. Let it cool off for a minute or two, and then when it’s warm enough to touch, pull it and stretch the edges first, and then work toward the center. The thinner you get it, the better it tastes because it’s thin and crunchy,” Hagen said.
Oaxacan Roasted Almonds
The recipe for savory and sweet Mexican mole-spiced Oaxacan Roasted Almonds is relatively simple.
Erickson told us you can use raw almonds with the skin on, because almond skin is thin and not bitter.
Keep an eye on the oven after you put the coated almonds in to roast. Stir them a few times, and watch for burning, since there’s sugar in the coating.
As you learn to cook with nuts, feel free to experiment with different kinds of nuts, and different flavorings.
You can make the nut brittle with pecans, peanuts or almonds. If you want a spicy brittle, add 1⁄8 to ¼ tsp of cayenne pepper to the recipe, or add ½ tsp cinnamon if you’re a fan of that taste.
We hope you enjoy trying these recipes and have fun cooking like a chef.
Happy, nutty holidays!