Are you overwhelmed during this busy time of year? Don't worry, I hear ya! Between talking on the King Arthur baker's hotline, teaching cookie decorating at our Baking Education Center, and blogging, work is pretty full right now.
Add to that my daughter Shannon's birthday 6 days before Christmas (brilliant planning on my part... not), and finishing up gift giving for the holidays, sure, things can definitely feel a little out of control along the way. BUT, nuts can also be your saving grace for sweet, spicy, delicious last-minute gifts this year. Curious yet? Read on...
I've always known about oranges and nuts being traditional fillers for stockings, but I never really pondered why until I started to write this particular blog. I knew that oranges were rather rare and hard to come by in Victorian times, and that adding one to a stocking was a sign of love and generosity. But what about nuts? Time to hit the all-knowing worldwide Web.
I came across lots of personal blogs with folks reminiscing about their own experiences with pecans, walnuts, and Brazil nuts on Christmas morning. As you can guess, some were happy memories, and some were more along the lines of “Awww, nuts! I wanted candy.”
Many mentioned family traditions, but there wasn't much on worldwide customs until I found this site: Christmas Stocking Customs. Lo and behold, there was the answer I was seeking.
As a former teacher of young children, I love the idea that stocking gifts were meant to stimulate a child's five senses. The fruit for taste, the nuts for hearing (as they were cracked open), plus others for sight, smell, and touch. What a great way to wish a child a world of experiences in the coming year!
So, some of you say I don't have kids, or hang stockings, or even celebrate Christmas as a holiday. That's fine, and I'm not here to tell you that you have to do any of those things.
I'm here to give you a delicious recipe or two to share with family, friends, co-workers, teachers, postal workers, hairdressers, dog groomers, the kids who shovels the walk, your mechanics, favorite waitresses, and fellow bloggers, and the list goes on. ’Tis the season for giving – whatever your chosen occasion.
To start, let's be sweet and make Sweet Vanilla Pecans:
Start with some lovely pecan halves or pieces. Halves are a little easier to handle and eat, but use what you can find. Place them in a large bowl with room enough to stir and toss.
Oh, and while we are discussing the types of nuts, repeat after me "IF I DON'T LIKE PECANS, I CAN USE OTHER NUTS. " Honest, you don't need my permission to use different kinds of nuts. Use the ones YOU like!
Mmm, cinnamon spice and everything nice. I love our apple pie spice for the rich cinnamon-y flavor it give these nuts. As you can see, it has hints of nutmeg and allspice too. It's a great way to get that homemade apple pie flavor without making a whole pie.
If you prefer, you can use just cinnamon or your own blend of sweet baking spices. Sorry, I can't tell ya the proportions of our blend, it's a secret, and then I'd haveta rub ya out. (Sorry, too many Bogart movies).
Place the spice in a small bowl with the confectioners' sugar and blend well. I like to add a pinch of salt here as well, but it is optional.
Blend the melted butter into the sugar/spice mixture. It will be a bit thick at first, but keep stirring and it will melt together nicely, and smell OH so good.
In the larger bowl, pour the butter/sugar/spice mixture over the pecans and stir to coat well. You know you want to, so go ahead and taste one. Being the cook pays off, doesn't it?
Spread the coated nuts out in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet. This will make stirring and clean up much easier. If you don't have parchment, use foil to line the baking sheet.
Bake the nuts at 250°F for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with half of the vanilla powder. Stir well and return to the oven for 10 more minutes.
** Vanilla powder gives you a mellow vanilla flavor with no alcohol. If you do not chose to use it, add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract to the butter/spice/sugar mixture before coating the nuts**
After the second 10 minutes, remove from the oven again and sprinkle with the rest of the vanilla powder. The nuts will have darkened, and the liquid will be thickened. Stir again and check to see how much liquid is left in the pan.
If you still have significant amounts of liquid left, return the nuts to the oven and bake until most of the liquid is gone. A small amount is okay, it will absorb and solidify as the nuts cool, making for a nice crunch.
There, these nuts are done. You can see there is very little liquid left and everything is bubbly and browned. Remove from the oven and cool. We liked these nuts served warm with a sprinkling of salt. Store airtight when completely cooled.
Well, I've had enough of being nice, let's get naughty with Spicy Garlic Nuts:
The process for baking the nuts is the same as described above, just the mixing of ingredients is slightly different.
This recipe uses 4 cups of nuts total. I used pecans and walnuts this time around.
Blend together the Garlic Oil ( or plain vegetable oil, but garlic oil is sooo much better) and Worcestershire sauce, and pour evenly over the nuts. Toss to coat.
Blend together the dry spices and sprinkle over the nuts.
Toss to coat evenly. Taste and adjust spices to your liking.
Spread the nuts on a baking sheet as described for the sweet version, and bake at 250°F for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. Sprinkle with additional salt if desired and serve. Store any leftovers airtight at room temperature.
These fancy tulip papers make great disposable serving dishes. Halley, our web director, was enchanted with the spicy bundle I left on her desk on testing day. Halley has such an elfin grin, it's fun to make her smile.
So, whether you are naughty or nice, sweet or a bit on the spicy side, these nuts will keep you sane and satisfied during the busy season, and all through the year.