Sunday, January 29, 2012

Candy coated almonds

Chinese New Year calls for sweets and red envelopes (those little money presents wrapped up in crimson paper called hongbao). You're on your own when it comes to preparing cash for children and unmarried young adults, but I have a deliciously crunchy snack from Beijing that kids and adults all love: candy coated almonds.

This is so easy that I am not going to go to great lengths here. You start with deep fried almonds, moisten them in an easy sugar syrup, and then toss them with powdered sugar. That's it.

The secret really is just starting with fresh raw almonds, placing them in cool oil, and then slowing frying them to perfection. Most people rush this step by tossing the nuts in hot oil, but that just dries out the exterior while the insides remain raw, or else they just fry the almonds into oblivion.

No, almonds -- like every other nut -- require love and care. Sneak up on them with the heat so that their moisture has a chance to bubble away. You will be rewarded with nutty nirvana.
Interior is crunchy, not dry

Likewise, coating them in this extraordinarily simple syrup is a snap, and then it is just a matter of tossing them in the powdered sugar. This last step keeps the kernels from sticking to each other and adds just a slight edge of sweetness to the almonds. The Chinese name  -- literally "shelled almond sticky" -- belies the fact that these are not sticky at all. But then again, why do we call fudge "fudge"?

Perhaps it is as Gertrude Stein once said, "A rose is a rose is a rose." In the end, it's just a name.

No matter what you call them, these are so subtle that I set them out even before dinner. Who could resist?

Candy coated almonds 
Xingren nian 杏仁粘  
Makes 1 pound

1 pound raw shelled almonds
And they make great gifts...
3 cups or so peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons filtered water
¼ cup sugar
Sprinkle of sea salt
½ cup powdered sugar, sifted

1. Fry the almonds as described here. Pour off the oil and allow the nuts to drain on some paper towels.

2. Prepare a clean medium work bowl. Wipe out the wok and bring the water, sugar, and salt to a boil over medium heat. As soon as the sugar water has turned into a syrup (you will see big bubbles and the liquid will have thickened), remove the wok from the heat, add the almonds, and use a metal spatula to toss them thoroughly in the syrup. Each nut should be evenly coated. Sprinkle the powdered sugar on top of the nuts and immediately toss them until the nuts are again evenly coated. Remove the nuts to a work bowl allow them to cool completely.

3. Shake off any excess powdered sugar. Store the cooled nuts in a covered container. If not using immediately, keep them in the refrigerator where they will last longer.