A Different Sort of Caramelized Nuts

jaggery nuts

There's sugar and then there's sugar. For someone like me who takes an unnatural delight in food shopping, the world of sweeteners hits way beyond C&H's pink and white packaging. Of course, there's light brown for cookies of every sort. Then there's demerera with its caramel, crunchy grains. A puck of palm sugar sits in my cupboard and gets a good shave everytime I (or rather, The Voracious One) constructs a Thai curry from scratch. Muscovado, musky and dark, is the sexiest sugar I know. But for the sake of pairing with nuts in the name of a craving or perhaps, some holiday gift-giving, I turn to the sugar from India with a phonetically fun name: Jaggery.

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Unrefined sugar from the sugar cane. I suppose it's a sweetener in the most natural state, boiled down from raw juice and poured in its bubbling freshness into tall, slightly tapered cylinders. To get into it for recipes, like the for caramelised nuts, a knife does the trick --- shaved from the edge or a rounded corner or more dangerously, from top to bottom. The pieces feel tender and have a deep, slightly bitter fragrance to them -- it's present in the flavor, too.

This combination of sweet, earthy and slightly bitter is what I love about jaggery -- which you can find in Indian grocers or in Mexican and South American shops as "panela." Everything I read about it extols its virtue as a mineral and nutrient-rich food stuff, good for the respiratory system and, dare I say it, "wholesome." But wholesome isn't what I want when I make treats for myself. Sweetness is the naughty indulgence that makes an average Monday special.

The nuts needn't be anything unique. You can use cashews since their meaty nuttiness has a softness like the jaggery, or peanuts, or walnuts, or a mix. This recipe is particularly handy when you have leftover bags of nuts from the bulk bin -- just toss them together in the pan when the jaggery is oozy-ready. And yes, there are aromatics in the recipe. The jaggery can handle it with its inherent complexity. You can play around with it but I've come to love the citrusy, familiar-yet-exotic scent of ground cardamom and a touch of chile pepper to surprise people in the aftertaste.

Now, the issue of melting sugar in a pan and letting it burnish a bit has the appeal of sticking your hand into a volcanic pit, particularly for novice caramelisers. But take heart in knowing that I'm one of the most sloppy, careless people in the world -- my mother would tell you so -- and if I can come out unscathed after making several batches, so will you.

Obviously, it help not to actually touch the sugar while it's magma-hot in the pan. It's a habit of mine to taste things as I cook them, but refrain from the mechanical movement. Also, don't try to touch or lick the wooden spoon that helps you even things about in the pan, which by the way should be non-stick for the easiest clean up. You can avoid post-traumatic stress disorder from that stage of the cooking process by soaking the pan and the wooden spoon in hot water in the sink. Remember, sugar melts.

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Vanessa's Caramelised Nuts Makes 1 1/2 cups

3/4 cup jaggery (shaved from the cone) * a knob (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened * 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom * 1/8 teaspoon (or more) of hot chile powder * 1 1/2 cups raw nuts * coarse sea salt

1.     In a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, melt the jaggery and butter until thick, smooth and bubbling. Add the cardamom and chile powder, simmer for 30 seconds. Then add the nuts. Use a wooden spoon to help the thick sugar-spice coating over the nuts. Cook in the pan for another 5 to 8, or until the nuts color not only from the sugar, but also from the ferocious heat of the sugar.

2.     Take the pan off the stove and turn out the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a disposable baking pan. Spread evenly across the pan and sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt. Coarse because nothing beats the crunch and sea salt because the jaggery will taste even sweeter and nuts are best when roasted (in this case in the sugar) and salted.

3.     Let cool completely and then break into little shards or pebbles. The jaggery will be soft -- not brittle like other caramelized nuts. So in addition to the flavor, there will be a nice chew to them. Serve in a bowl for friends who are over to commiserate with beer or package them in plastic bags for gifts. If you're like me, a ribbon will do. But if you're more of the Martha Stewart-type, then by all means, have at it.