Walnut Brittle

When I want to make something new that I have no experience with, I very seldom find one recipe and make it from that. Most of the time I try to find half a dozen different recipes with good reviews and then I attempt to triangulate my ideal list of ingredients and techniques.

Over the holidays a lot of people were posting about brittle, peanut and otherwise, and I started to get interested in making it – we never made it in my household, and I can honestly say I’ve only eaten the stuff a handful of times in my life. I’m really not sure why I haven’t ventured into this arena before.

I chose to use unsalted walnuts because I bought a bag for making the Turkish delight (which I explain in this post) and had quite a lot left over.

Looking at the various recipes I found online, there were clear patterns of similarities. Brittle is, at its most basic, just hard candy – not really that much different from my candy glass recipe – where water and sugar are heated to the “hard crack” stage (300°) and allowed to set in a thin layer. The majority of the recipes called for corn syrup, which is used in candy-making because of some fiddly business on the molecular level that prevents the formation of small sugar crystals. This is essential in clear, smooth products like the candy glass, but not absolutely essential in something like brittle. I chose to use it because I have several bottles of the stuff left around from making the candy glass.

Almost none of the recipes called for any kind of spices; the one that did was missing several other ingredients that were present in the majority of the recipes. I opted to include cinnamon in my batch. Similarly, some recipes called for vanilla extract and others didn’t. I thought it sounded tastier to include it.

Baking soda is included in many recipes and gives the brittle loft (i.e. makes it lighter and fluffier). Some versions actually include lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to react with the baking soda and make for even more bubble creation and a still fluffier final product, more akin in texture to meringue.

Here’s what I finally ended up using:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups chopped nuts
  • 5 tbsp butter (I was going to use 4, but I had an open stick and it seemed silly to save 1 tbsp)
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Dash of cinnamon (how much a dash is, I leave to your preference)

You’ll need a deep-sided pot – I used a small stock pot and a long-handled spoon because I really don’t enjoy getting splashed with boiling syrup or having it bubble out onto my stove.

One thing that appeared throughout the various recipes were comments that you need to make sure you have all your ingredients measured out ahead of time.

You’ll definitely want the butter and baking soda ready to go when the time comes. Plus, the butter needs to be close to room temperature, so measuring it out ahead of time helps with that. While you’re prepping your ingredients, take out a jelly roll pan and coat it thoroughly with nonstick cooking spray (or butter, or Crisco, or whatever your preferred method of coating a pan). You can also use a silicone baking mat, but I don’t have one yet. I’m sure it’s bound to happen eventually – my lovely assistant has my kitchen wish list bookmarked.

First I positioned my candy thermometer – you don’t want to be fooling with it while hot sugar boils in the pot, in my experience. Then I combined the sugar, salt, water, vanilla, and corn syrup and turned up the heat to high. It all began to blend well around 200°, with no visible grains of sugar left in the mixture.

In went the walnuts. It takes a while for the whole thing to reach 300°, and you don’t really need to be stirring it constantly, so feel free to do something else as long as you remember to stir it occasionally in order to keep the nuts from sticking to the bottom and burning.

Once it gets to temperature, pull it off the heat and quickly stir in the butter. Be careful! The butter will basically boil on contact and you don’t want to get splashed. Syrups and fats are the two worst things to scald yourself with, because they don’t come off your skin right away and will continue to burn you well after the initial contact. There’s not a lot that scares me in the kitchen, but you’d have to be insane not to have a rush of adrenaline when a droplet of hot oil hits you right in the corner of the eye, millimeters away from potentially blinding you. Don’t screw around with this stuff.

Next, add in the baking soda and stir vigorously. You’ll notice a change in the texture of the syrup once you add the butter, and an even more dramatic one after the soda goes in. The syrup will change from translucent to opaque and take on a slightly stringier consistency. It’s also cooling rapidly, so be quick.

Pour your mixture out onto the baking sheet. It won’t spread much on its own, and you don’t want it setting in a thick glob, so use your stirring spoon or a silicone spatula to spread it around as much as possible. You’ll notice that it begins to harden right away, although it will still remain hot and slightly pliable for quite some time.

Once it has hardened, it’s time to break it up and eat it (or, I suppose, package it to give and share, spoilsports…).

I laid out some paper towels because I didn’t feel like scrubbing down my kitchen island, and then had the lovely assistant flip the pan. You might need to twist it slightly to get the brittle to release, like wringing a towel out or bending an ice cube tray. It should pop right out with a little bit of torsion. Often it will break into a few large sections during this process. Then you can break it up into more bite-sized pieces using whatever implement you prefer – we happen to have a wooden tenderizing mallet that I shudder to use on raw meat, so that was our tool.

It was so good. In the future I may experiment with the baking soda to get something a little less dense, but this was not so hard as to be unpleasant. It had a good crunch, a rich, caramel-y flavor, and just enough saltiness. We took it to a friend’s house and a lot of it disappeared, which is usually a sign of a culinary success.

This one will definitely make its way into my rotation of dessert recipes.

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