Monday, April 23, 2018

Not your momma's peanut brittle

I fell in seriously in love with Taiwan’s sweets practically from the moment I stepped off the plane. Peanut candy soon became one of the pillars of my diet. 

Part of the appeal was the lowered level of sweetness, as maltose is often used in place of part of the sugar. The other source of this lifelong addiction was the flavor and crispness of Taiwan’s peanuts, which are insanely good.

Penghu, or the Pescadores Islands, as they used to be called—Portuguese fishermen sailing around in Chinese waters just wasn’t that long ago, was it?—is an archipelago of about 90 isles scattered in the Taiwan Straits, right between Taiwan and Fujian. It also happens to be home to some of the greatest peanuts in the world. Yes, they are a bit on the small side, but these red-skinned wonders are worth seeking out.

I’ve played a bit with tradition here and come up with something that works wonderfully as a bar snack. Instead of the usual sweetness and light of regular old school Chinese peanut brittle, I’ve made this a whole lot zippier. These can be seriously addictive chile bombs if you can get your hands on good quality peanuts seasoned with chiles and citrus.

For, that heat is marvelous and cuts the cloyingness of the candy. Plus, the citrusy touch (probably due to citric acid, rather than real limes or lemons) will have you reaching for another square while your mouth is still working on a piece. Serve these with chilled beer.

If you would prefer straight-up brittle, use plain toasted peanuts. Add about ½ teaspoon salt if the peanuts are unsalted, and then serve the brittle with hot tea. 

Your best bet for toasted peanuts would be a health food store with a fast turnover and a good selection of bulk bins. In my area, that might be Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods. Places like Trader Joe’s have some good spiced nuts, too, but you won’t be able to sample them.

Caramelizing syrup
Get your maltose at any self-respecting Chinese grocery store. It comes in plastic tubs and usually is hiding on the sugar aisle. It’s easiest to weigh maltose, rather than spoon it out into a measuring cup. Either way, nuke the opened jar for about a minute, or just until the maltose has softened enough to spoon or pour out. It’s always a good idea to spray your measuring cup or bowl with oil, as otherwise maltose can be hellishly sticky.

That being said, that maltose makes for one heck of a great candy. The brittle really is crunchy, rather than sticky, because the sugars were all caramelized. So you see, we have caramel + peanuts + chile. I’m definitely in my happy place.

Crispy spicy Chinese peanut brittle chez Huang
Gooey strings that harden up
Huángjiā làxiāngcuì huāshēngtáng 黃家辣香脆花生糖
Makes almost 2 pounds | 850 g

Spray oil
1 cup | 200 g sugar
⅔ cup | 225 g maltose (see headnotes)
½ cup | 125 ml water
1 pound | 450 g toasted chile-lime peanuts, or any other unsweetened toasted nuts
¼ cup | 40 g toasted sesame seeds, optional

1. Prepare an 8 x 8 inch | 20 x 20 cm metal pan and a sheet of parchment paper (or foil) by spraying them lightly with oil, and have a silicone spatula ready. Place the sugar, maltose, and water in a high, 2-quart | 2-liter steel pan. (You will need the light color of the metal in order to determine when the sugar has caramelized, and it should have high sides so that the syrup doesn’t bubble over.)

Press into an even layer
2. Bring the syrup mixture to a full boil over medium heat, stirring it occasionally. As soon as it boils, cover the pan and cook the syrup for a couple of minutes so that the steam washes down any sugar, which might otherwise cause the syrup to crystallize after it cools, instead of staying nice and smooth.

3. Remove the cover and cook the syrup until it starts to caramelize, which will take about 10 minutes. The syrup will bubble up into a froth first, and then settle down into a smaller layer of bubbles just before the sugar darkens. Swirl the pan as it boils to achieve an even, light golden hue. It will smell like caramel when it’s ready. If you’d prefer to use a candy thermometer, that would be about 320°F | 160°C. When you have caramelized syrup in your pan, reduce the heat to the absolute minimum.

Perfect for Chinese New Year, too
4. At that moment, quickly stir in the nuts and optional sesame seeds, and then mix them thoroughly with the spatula so as to coat each piece well. Keeping the pan on low heat will help keep the syrup from seizing up. Scrape the mixture out into the prepare pan. Immediately cover the pan with the oiled paper and the towel, and then press down on it to create a level layer.

5. Cool the candy for a couple of minutes, just until the bottom of the pan is warm. Turn the pan over onto a cutting board and slice it into small squares or rectangles. Refrigerate in a covered container.


  1. Actually citric acid isn't Vitamin C. Vitamin C is ascorbic acid, as in anti-scorbutic, as in prevents scurvy.

    Common mistake, but your writing suggests you're a perfectionist and you like to get things right.