‘Tis the season

Christmas is just around the corner and times are tight.  Just because everyone’s cutting back doesn’t mean we can’t all share a little something with our friends and co-workers.  The folks at my office crowd around like freakin’ pigeons when I bring this in and it’s adaptable enough it can be made for everyone to enjoy.  So for those among us who don’t feel compelled to trample their fellow man to save a few bucks on trinkets and baubles for their loved ones I give you my recipe for Herr Baron’s Crazy Peanuts.

Actually, before we got to the recipe how about a bit of back story?  I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past that I work for a Chinese company.  Being a Chinese company there are, surprisingly, a lot of Chinese people in my office.  I’m not a believer in the whole “diversity in and of itself make any organization better” theory, but it has been particularly educational from an eating standpoint.  To wit – what the majority of us white devils* consider Chinese food is pretty much American food that’s been dressed up in such a way as to make us think we’re eating something authentically Chinese.  There are some superficial similarities to authentic Chinese but it’s not home cooking to the folks in my office.

I like the spicy and by tagging along with some of my co-workers I now know of a couple of authentic Sichuan (Szechuan) restaurants here in town.  One of the things that makes Sichuan cuisine unique is the Sichuan peppercorn or hua jiao.  It’s technically not a pepper and it doesn’t add heat.  It’s got an almost citrusy flavor but the oddest thing is it numbs your mouth.  It’s pretty funny watching the uninitiated when they bite into them for the first time.  Once you’re used to it, though, Sichuan food isn’t the same without it.

You’ve either got to buy it on-line or hit your local Asian market to find it.  I picked some up at a Chinese grocery store and it was okay; then one of my co-workers gave me a bunch that her husband brought back from Chengdu (her hometown in Sichuan province of China).  The following Monday I told her that if we were living a crime drama this would be the point where the cops were trying to figure out who murdered the victim with a hot dose of junk.  She didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.  So I said, “Annie, the hua jiao you gave me is so much stronger than what I got at the market I can’t believe it’s the same stuff.”

I use it in this recipe, but not everyone would like it anyway so feel free to leave it out.  Once you get past the basic recipe you can add whatever floats your boat.

Anyway, on to the recipe.  The basic stuff:

Two cups of blanched peanuts (or other nuts, I reckon)
One cup granulated sugar
One teaspoon salt
1/4-1/3 cup water
Other spices as desired**

I use a non-stick saute pan and a silicon spatula for this and the end result sticks to both.  You’re basically making candy and melted sugar is very sticky.  And will burn the everloving crap out of you if you’re not careful.  I read a little about candy making – i.e. “soft crack” vs. “hard crack” and the difference is the amount of water.  Since there’s water added in this recipe the goal is to cook it all back out (hard crack has <1% water) and caramelize the sugar.  If you don’t cook it long enough to get all the water out the end product will be sticky.

Anyway, put everything together in a skillet over medium heat.  Once it starts to boil you’ll want to keep stirring it pretty much constantly.  The syrup will get thicker and thicker, reduce the heat a bit as it does to keep from burning the sugar.  Keep stirring.  It takes ~10-15 minutes once the water has visibly boiled out to get the sugar caramelized and the sugar cooked to where it will be crunchy after it cools.  The whole gooey, sticky mess will start to clump together and it takes constant stirring to get all the nuts evenly coated.  Keep stirring, keep an eye on the heat, and keep an eye on the color of the sugar.  When the sugar has caramelized to your liking, scrape the candy out of the skillet onto a piece of parchment paper and press as thin as you can with your spatula.  Once it cools, break it up and it’s ready to share

** Other spices – for my Chinese-pleasing crazy peanuts:

One tablespoon chinkiang (black) vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 – 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (one teaspoon makes them pretty racy)
One tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns (ground – I use a mortar and pestle)

The black vinegar makes it a little more challenging to know when the sugar starts to caramelize but adds a really unique flavor.  I just add everything together at the beginning and let the spices cook in and infuse flavor.

Practice makes perfect.  My first two batches were so-so and sticky.  Now that I’ve got it down I could sell ’em and there wouldn’t be enough time in the day to keep up with demand at the office.

* One of my running gags at the office is a sign I printed and hung under my name plate that says “white devil” in Mandarin.  Almost every single Chinese person who comes to my desk points at the sign and asks, “Do you know what that says?”

“Sure,” I reply, “it says ‘Number One Recruiter’, right?”

“Who told you that?”

“My boss, Neil [he’s Chinese], he printed it out and told me it says #1 Recruiter and I should hang it on my wall.”  At that point they’re either too polite to tell me what it really says or they’ll tip toe around it or they call bullshit.  It’s not much but it keeps me going.  Besides, they don’t get any of my pop culture references.  They do laugh when I ask if they’re making Kung Pao turkey for Thanksgiving though, so I’ve got that too.

Happy Holidays!

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