Say you want a quick dessert: fresh fruit and a few nuts would be healthy, pretty, and fast. But how to make it a little special?
Instead of plain nuts, you could toast them in a dry skillet or in the oven. But the oven requires time (preheating) and rummaging (for a baking pan). If you are going that far, you might as well go all the way and add herbs and spices. But that would involve choosing, measuring, perhaps chopping ingredients, and then tossing them with the nuts in a bowl. More time plus dishes.
There’s a very simple technique for candy-ing nuts that gives a frosty, sweet, crunchy coating—tossing the nuts in a frothy egg white and sugar, and then toasting them in the oven. But then there’s the egg white, a whisk, a bowl. And an all-alone egg yolk to worry about. (“Do it,” says the dog. “Let me deal with the yolk.”) And the oven still would need preheating. (No convection at my house.)
That leaves toasting the nuts in a dry skillet. But—aha!—maybe the technique of making caramel in a hot, dry pan would work for the nuts. When a sprinkling of sugar hits the pan, it immediately melts and caramelizes in a fizz of smoke. Then you add a little more sugar, not more than the melted sugar can absorb, and very soon you have caramel. So, let’s try it.
In a large—or medium, it depends on how many nuts you want to toast; they should sit comfortably in a single layer—scatter some raw nuts, a single kind or a mix such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans. Have some salt and sugar by the side of the stove (A bowl of salt and a pepper mill should live by the stove anyway.). And perhaps some ground chili pepper such as my current favorite, Halabi red pepper, used throughout the Middle East. (It’s also known as Aleppo pepper; piment d’Espelette from Spain has a similar flavor profile—deliciously fruity, spicy, complex. Halabi has a particularly vibrant, red-brick color.)
Put the skillet over medium heat and toast the nuts, tossing them often so they cook evenly. When they smell fragrant and toasty, scatter some sugar over the hot nuts. It will immediately melt and may let off a puff of smoke. Regulate the heat; you want the sugar to melt and caramelize, not burn. Stir and toss the nuts with a silicone spatula. Add more sugar, light dusting by light dusting while stirring and tossing, until the nuts look glossy. Sprinkle in a good pinch of kosher or sea salt and a dusting of chili pepper. Then scrape the nuts onto a plate to cool. Store in an airtight container. Seven minutes. One skillet. Amazing flavor. Oh, and easy clean-up.