My friend Victoria lives in Texas. Audrey and I always get feverishly excited when she comes to visit us. Not just because she’s a delightful, uproariously hilarious person–which she is–but because whenever she comes, she brings each of us a pretty paper box full of candied pecans.
These are a serious indulgence, my friends–candy-sweet and nutty-rich, wrapped in a crisp, lacy skin of beaten egg white. Pop one in your mouth, and the candy coating shatters and crackles between your teeth, giving way to buttery pecan crunch. They’re almost ladylike, in a way, wrapped up in sugary white lace. Every time she visits, Audrey and I make a pact to share one box and put the other one away for safekeeping. And every time, we end up plowing through both boxes in a matter of days.
Victoria’s pecans popped into my mind the other day, as I was considering what to make as a birthday present for my boyfriend’s pecan-loving mother. It’s speeding towards Christmas, and something spicy and sweet seemed appropriate. I rifled through the spice cabinet, and unearthed a tin of smoked cinnamon that Sam’s mom had given me as a gift. I decided to make a batch of candied spiced pecans, using her gift as the basis for my gift. And what a great idea that was.
If the Texas-style pecans are ladylike and sweet, these are gutsy, dark, even a little sexy. Not candied, exactly–there’s much less sugar, for one thing, so the coating is equal parts sweet, salty, and smoky. If the candied pecans make me think of white lace, these spiced pecans make me think of bourbon. I made up a pretty paper box for Sam’s mom, and some little bundles for my coworkers. I had planned to toss the leftovers into a salad–maybe with some bits of pear and blue cheese–but then they disappeared too, within a matter of hours. I guess some things don’t change.
Sweet-and-Smoky Spiced Pecans (makes about 4 cups)
Note: If pecans aren’t your thing, walnut halves work gorgeously too. I’ve tried this with blanched almonds, but didn’t love the results–the coating really needs a craggy surface to adhere to.
1/4 cup light brown sugar or raw (turbinado) sugar
1 tsp coarse sea salt
1 tsp smoked cinnamon OR 1 tsp ground cinnamon + 1/4 tsp smoked paprika (sweet or hot)
Large pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste (omit if using hot paprika)
1 lb (16 oz/about 4 cups) pecan halves (see note)
1 large egg white, at room temperature
1 tbsp water
Preheat the oven to 300º F, and grease or parchment-line a baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together sugar, salt, cinnamon, smoked paprika (if using), and cayenne pepper (if using). Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together egg white and water until thick and foamy but not stiff. Add nuts and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle the sugar mixture over the nuts, and toss again until evenly coated. Spread the nuts in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake, stirring every 10 minutes or so, for about 30 minutes, or until the nuts are deeply browned and just dry to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on the baking sheet.
Once the nuts are cooled, go through and break up any stuck-together clumps. Transfer to an airtight container, and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.