It's the holiday season, and you know what that means.
Cookies! When I was little, Christmas often meant that it was time for my Italian grandmother to whip up batches of her favorite old-world treats with her daughter in-law, my mom. Sometimes, there were pizelle - literally, "little pizzas" in Italian. Grandma would pour anise-scented batter onto a hot pizelle iron, which when pressed together around the sizzling mixture would result in lacy, round discs that were so crispy and light, they fairly shattered in your mouth.
My brother's favorites, as I recall, were an Italian riff on jam thumb-prints: rounds of cake-like dough flavored with almond, with a dollop of sticky red jam in the center. I favored Grandma's spice cookies, which bore no resemblance to the ginger-and-molasses variety most of us are used to seeing. The Italian version is soft and dark, baked from a dough of allspice, cinnamon, raisins and chocolate, the little mounds iced with a white, powdered-sugar glaze. Dad's choice? I remember him liking them all, but he often reached for the Sicilian cookies called "cuccidati," pockets of butter-colored cookie dough filled with a mixture of dried figs, dates, nuts and spices. As for my mom and my sister, always "struffoli" - Grandma's honey cakes. Always. Truth be told, we all loved those little fried footballs of citrusey cake soaked in honey. I don't know how she did it, but when Grandma made struffoli, she was able to find a perfect balance of sticky, crispy, and pillowy in each one-inch bite.
So with Christmas in the air, my mind naturally wanders back to my mom's kitchen, and the image of my tiny (4' 10") Grandma churning out dozens and dozens of sweets. Yep, it's that time of year. Time to bake
Oh, wait a minute. What happened to the cookies? I know, I know. I should be baking up a flurry of Christmas cookies right about now. I should be elbow deep in a drift of flour, with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. It's tradition, after all! Well, here at the Kitchen Travels house, I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed with the impending holiday season. So I'm all about a new tradition this year: simplify, simplify, simplify. Which means, regretfully, that you probably won't be seeing
a lot of very many any cookies coming out of the Kitchen Travels kitchen this December.*
What you will be seeing, however, are these sweet and savory spiced nuts. They'll be making appearances on top of cool, crisp salads at the dinner table. They'll be nibbled with abandon throughout the weekends leading to Christmas. And for a lucky few, they'll be nestled into jars or glassine bags, tied with ribbons or raffia, and gifted with a smile.
I made these for the first time on Thanksgiving, and even in competition with the usual T-Day foods, they barely lasted the day. With their crunchy appeal and smoky sweetness, these nuts are a perfect way to introduce your kids to some of the more "exotic" spice flavors in your cabinet. And even more appealing? They are such a snap to make, they fit right in with my new tradition.
Sweet and Savory Spiced Nuts
According to Gourmet, these will keep at room temperature in an airtight container for a week. Ha! Trust me, these won't be around long enough to see if that is true.
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
Pinch of ground cloves
1 large egg white
2 cups walnut halves (1/2 lb)
2 cups pecan halves (1/2 lb)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter or oil a 4-sided sheet pan (a regular baking/cookie sheet works fine, if you're careful).
Whisk together sugar, spices and salt in a small bowl. In a separate, medium bowl, whisk egg white until frothy. Stir in nuts to coat. Add spice mixture and toss to coat.
Spread nut mixture in a single layer on the buttered sheet pan. Bake on the middle rack of your oven, stirring halfway through, until nuts are dry and toasted - about 20 minutes. Loosen nuts from pan with a large metal spatula, and cool completely. The nuts seemed to turn out slightly crunchier when I spread them in a separate 9X13" pan to cool.
* If it's cookies you're looking for, head on over to one of my favorite food blogs, Lottie + Doof, where Tim has been baking up a snowstorm of cookies lately. If you do, be sure to tell him Dawn says hi.