I can be a bit of a mad scientist in the kitchen sometimes, trying variations of basic recipes. My latest experimentations focus on molten sugar, usually in combination with the excellent pecans from the Berkeley Farmers Market. I’ve tried various proportions of sugar, water, nuts and salt to coat pecans with the right amount of caramel and salt. However, my record keeping practices are usually poor (I need to clip a voice recorder to my apron) and so I never remember what works and what doesn’t.
Recently I added a three new items to the mix: 1) cacao nibs, 2) a notebook, and 3) a pencil. Cacao nibs are the edible interior of cacao seeds, the main ingredient in high quality chocolate (see Guittard’s chocolate glossary for an ‘official’ definition). They can be rather bitter and tannic on their own, but with the right companions, they can be delicious, offering fruity notes and a purity of flavor.
Two of the Bay Area chocolate makers, Guittard (Burlingame, on the Peninsula) and Scharffenberger (Berkeley) sell them to the public. I buy Guittard brand at Spun Sugar on University (at California) in Berkeley (about $5/lb.), a great shop with a “wall of chocolate” and everything you could need for candy making or cake decorating. Scharffenberger nibs can be purchased at their factory store and the Ferry Plaza outlet, and perhaps at select retailers.
Important note: When making this recipe (or any molten sugar recipe), take safety precautions. Molten sugar is very hot and sticky. It can cause serious burns. Use a long spoon, consider wearing an oven mitt when stirring after the nuts go into the caramel, consider wearing long sleeves, have a bowl of ice water nearby, and let the nuts fully cool before digging in (the interior of the mass of nuts stays hot for a long time).
Caramel-coated Nuts with Cacao Nibs
1 c. lightly toasted pecans or other nut (or a mixture)
1/4 c. white sugar
1/2 T. water
1 t. coarse salt
1/4 c. cacao nibs
Place a Silpat, sheet of parchment paper, or piece of aluminum foil on a cookie sheet or a heat-resistant surface (like a wooden board).
Combine the nibs, nuts, and salt in a thin, tall container, one that will allow you to easily direct its contents into your caramel-making pan (i.e. not a plate).
Combine the sugar and water in a heavy pot, preferably with a light-colored interior so you can see the progress of the caramelization. Stir to combine the water and sugar.
Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. The sugar and water will form a solution, then it will bubble as the water evaporates and the temperature approaches the caramelization point. I usually stir a few times or gently shake the pan to promote uniformity. After a little while the mixture will begin to change color (probably around the edges of the pan). When this happens, begin watching it carefully, as the point of “doneness” is very close.
When the color is to your liking, turn off the heat, then quickly pour in the nuts, nibs and salt. Stir a few times to coat everything with caramel, then carefully scrape the mixture onto the Silpat, parchment paper, or aluminum foil. Allow to cool before sampling! (And allow the pan to cool for a little while before adding water.)
Variations: A bit of spice might be a pleasant addition, perhaps some mild chili powder (like ancho), cinnamon, cardamom, or garam masala.