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Sexy Ingredient #4

Nuts

Oh, the jokes and naughty laughter. But seriously, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that none of my kids are allergic to nuts, because I bake with them all the time. Nearly as often as I bake with booze. Plus, in moderation, they’re super-healthy. Best of all, they’re like magic as far as baking is concerned, lending flavour, texture, moisture, tenderness, colour and richness to everything from cookies and cakes to ice creams and mousses.

When you hear mention of nuts in reference to baking, you probably think first along the lines of pecans, walnuts, maybe hazelnuts. But there are so many other varieties out there, and best of all, you can more or less switch them up to your heart’s content. Nuts are basically protein and fat (don’t run away; it’s the good fat) (also, you need fat in baking, otherwise you’re making crackers). There isn’t a lot of difference between most varieties in terms of how they perform in a recipe, so feel free to experiment with different sorts and flavours; suddenly, your baking repertoire is three times as big as it was before:

Instead of pecans in the chocolate chip cookies you love, try peanuts.

Make the filling for the lovely chocolate pear tart with hazelnuts instead of almonds next time.

Try the shortbread recipe with pistachios instead of walnuts, and give it a pretty hint of pale green while you’re at it.

One of the lovely things about nuts is that they all contribute a rich and distinct flavour to the finished product, but won’t ever overpower other flavours. In the book, I’ve got a big ol’ section about Flavour Pairing, and this is just the kind of thing it’s for: “Hm. I’ve got this tart recipe, which calls for almonds, and I’d rather use pistachios, but maybe another kind of fruit would go better with pistachios than pears.” Like peaches, for instance. Cashews, pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, even buttery and luxurious macadamia nuts all pair beautifully with white, milk, and dark chocolate, fresh and dried fruits, and classic flavours like vanilla and caramel or toffee.

Often in baking, a recipe will call for nuts to be toasted before being chopped or ground or added to the rest of the ingredients. While this is ridiculously easy, I screw it up a lot, mostly by forgetting I’m toasting nuts until I smell them burning. My big professional advice is to use a timer. Do as I say, not as I do. For most nuts, spreading them in a single layer on a baking sheet and baking at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they are warm and fragrant, is all it takes. Let them cool, and use as desired.

The biggest factor when buying and using nuts in baking is to make sure they’re fresh. Nuts, being high in fat, can go rancid rather quickly. They should be stored for no more than 6 months, in a cool, dark, dry place in an air-tight container. The trick is to make sure that the nuts are fresh when you buy them. I have often bought nuts that are already this side of rancid. Because they show no obvious signs of spoilage, stores with low turnover on their stock can have old nuts for sale, and you won’t know till you taste them. If tasting them before you buy isn’t possible, definitely taste them before using them at home. You should be doing this with as much of the ingredients you bake with as possible – anything that tastes off going in isn’t going to taste any better after baking.  Buy nuts from a store with high turnover, and in as small quantities as possible.

They can be the star, or the supporting player, but I honestly couldn’t be the baker I am without them. And don’t forget to play around, and try replacing the old stand-by with something new and sexy. It’s too much fun.

One of my favourite after dinner-with-liqueur-or-espresso cookies are these lovely chewy little macaroons. The recipe, from In the Sweet Kitchen, calls for good quality almond paste, which is available from baking supply stores, or fine food shops. If you’d rather though, you can make a fabulous almond paste (and soooo yummy) in no time. Most almond pastes are about 50% almonds to 50% sugar; that works beautifully,  but for these cookies, I use a 70%-30% ration which is slightly firmer and less sweet. Either can be used in any other recipe calling for almond paste.

Almond Paste

14 ounces whole blanched almonds
6 ounces icing sugar, not sifted
1/4 to 3/4 cup sugar syrup (see recipe below)

1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse or whir the almonds and icing sugar until they come together in a fine evenly-ground mixture.
2. With the machine running, dribble in the simple syrup, about 1/4 cup at a time, until the mixture comes together into a paste. The amount of simple syrup necessary with depend on how much moisture is in the almonds.
3. Transfer almond paste to a clean container and cover tightly. The paste can be kept at room temperature for a few days; for longer storage, refrigerate. Use at room temperature.

Makes approximately 24 ounces almond paste.

Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

1. Combine both ingredients in a small heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot. Stirring until sugar dissolves, bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and cool completely before using. Refrigerate until needed.

Chewy Almond Macaroons

A small, richly-flavoured, chewy cookie with a succulent texture. The secret lies in using almond paste, rather than ground almonds in the dough. The oils released in the paste make the macaroons moister and more evenly tender than those made with freshly ground nuts. Do use almond paste, and not marzipan, as the latter contains too much sugar in relation to almonds. Almond paste is available in specialty food stores and baking supply shops.

8 ounces good-quality almond paste (not marzipan)

1/2 cup icing sugar, not sifted

2 large egg whites, at room temperature, preferably at least several days old, or even frozen whites, thawed

1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Line two heavy but not non-stick baking sheets with parchment paper, and set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, break up the almond paste, and gradually knead the icing sugar into the paste by hand. This may take 6 or 7 minutes, but the mixture will eventually become homogenous and smooth. Lightly beat the egg whites, and add all at once to the almond mixture. Beat the mixture until the whites are fully incorporated, then continue to beat for 2 to 3 minutes until the batter is lightened. If the batter looks to runny to pipe, chill for a few minutes until firmer.

2. Spoon the batter into a strong piping bag fitted with a medium-small tip, and pipe the batter in little mounds of about 3/4” diameter onto the baking sheets, spacing the macaroons 1-1/2” to 2” apart. The cookies will not spread very much, and will retain the mound shape well. Bake the macaroons in the centre of the oven for approximately 15 minutes, or until the edges and tips are lightly golden, and the undersides are golden and firm. Transfer the sheets to wire racks, cool for 5 minutes, then remove the macaroons to the racks themselves and cool completely. Rinse the baking sheets under cold water and dry well before repeating with the remaining batter. These cookies are absolutely fantastic the day they are made, but keep well stored in an air-tight container for up to 3 days. Makes about 3-1/2 dozen bite-sized macaroons.

Variation:

Chocolate-Dipped Chewy Almond Macaroons: Melt 4 ounces of finely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally. Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a non-reactive bowl in the microwave set on medium power for about 1-1/2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds. With both methods, remove the chocolate from the heat when it is 3/4 melted, and stir to melt completely. Take care not to let any moisture, even steam, come into contact with the chocolate, or it will seize, and become unsalvageable. Dip each macaroon into the warm chocolate, tip first, up to the flat bottom. Feel free to dip these any way you like, but I find leaving the bottoms free of chocolate make them easier to dip, and lets a little more of the almond flavour through. Transfer the dipping macaroons to a parchment lined baking sheet, and allow the chocolate to set completely before stacking the cookies between layers of waxed or parchment paper in air-tight containers. Store at room temperature.

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