Valentine's Day is when the truth comes out—when some of us will learn, often after weeks, months, years of living in the dark, that the people we love the most don't love chocolate.
For those of whose dreams look like the end of a Dove chocolate commercial, it might be hard to wrap our heads around this. Oh, but how else will I express my undying love for you if I can't make you something chocolately that I would have eaten most of anyway?
If you're not going to celebrate someone you love with a treasure chest of truffles, or the chocolatiest cake imaginable, take to the stove and make them nut brittle: a shiny mosaic of their favorite nuts and seeds (or, those hanging out in your pantry) that's as sweet as you are, for being so gosh darn thoughtful. (Right?)
The road map looks like this—make a caramel; fold in nuts; allow to harden; smash it up; eat it up—but along the way, there are twists, turns, and opportunities to explore new paths: Choose the combination of nuts, seeds, and spices you like. Make your caramel as ultra lush and buttery or as hard, thin, and teeth-crackingly crunchy as you'd like.
The step-by-step "deets," right after the candy break:
1. Prep your nuts and seeds.
Except butter, sugar, and salt (and whatever spices you choose to add), the primary flavor-flavors of the brittle will come from the nuts and seeds that you fold into the caramel at the end.
Thus, you'll want to coax all of the flavor out of them that you can right from the get-go. Toast any raw nuts and seeds—in the oven or on the stovetop, with a little bit of oil—until they're brown and fragrant, then toss them with a pinch or two of salt.
The one exception might be black sesame seeds, which you can skip toasting, buy pre-toasted, or cook very, very carefully; since they're black to begin with, it can be easy to burn them. Of course, you can always buy roasted and/or salted nuts to begin with and save yourself some time.
Chop the nuts or leave them whole, depending on how cobbled and chunky you'd like it.
Some nuts and seeds to mix and match:
Peanuts (the classic choice); almonds (whole, chopped, slivered, or sliced); Marcona almonds; cashews; hazelnuts (you might want to skin them, too); pistachios; macadamia nuts; walnuts; pecans; pepitas; sunflower seeds; sesame seeds (white and black)...
2. Choose a caramel; corral the ingredients.
There's a wide range of caramel methods—read all about it here—but the first thing you'll notice as you explore brittle recipes is that some call for lots of butter (8 tablespoons per 2 cups sugar in Ms.T's Pine Nut Brittle with Rosemary) while others calls for none at all (as in Phyllis Grant's Hazelnut Brittle). The amount of butter you use will determine how rich (and also greasy-feeling) your final brittle will be, and its texture, too: While Phyllis' hazelnut brittle shatters into sharp shards, like sugary, nut-studded glass, Ms. T's pine nut brittle is softer to cut and chew.
I suggest keeping the butter factor in mind but choosing a caramel recipe you trust and sticking to the listed ratios of sugar, water, and fat to ensure a successful outcome. No matter what source you turn to, you'll definitely need granulated sugar and water, and you'll need likely butter (in some quantity) and corn syrup, too.
(You can find recipes that skip the corn syrup entirely, but you may have to take extra precautions against crystallization; as our expert-in-residence Erin McDowell's explains in her article "Why Corn Syrup Isn't Evil," the chemical composition of corn syrup results in a caramel that's more likely to be smooth.)
3. Ready your station.
You've gathered and measured your caramel ingredients. Get your prepped nuts in arm's reach, and grab baking soda and any spices or extracts you'll want to add, too.
Now line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper sprayed with nonstick spray. Grease a rubber spatula, while you're at it.
4. Caramel, commence!
Once everything's in order, it's time to start the caramel.
Here's how I did it, based on Tina Ujlaki's Best-Ever Brittle (though, as I've said, other methods abound!): For 12 ounces of nuts, I combined 2 cups white sugar, 1/2 cup water, 8 tablespoons room temperature butter, and 1/3 cup corn syrup in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat.
I stirred until the butter melted and sugar dissolved.
Then, once the mixture came to a boil, I inserted a candy thermometer and stirred occasionally until it reached 300° F. (The instruction to stir—rather than to keep the spoon to yourself—is determined by the amount of dairy fat and invert sugar in the recipe.)
You have to wait until the temperature reaches 300° F, as mind-numbingly frustrating as that might be, so that it gets to the "hard-crack stage" of candy-making. At this stage (a temperature where hardly any water remains in the syrup), a drop of the hot sticky stuff will flatten out into a glossy, hard circle that will snap when bent. (If you don't let the temperature inch up to 300° F, your brittle will bend, not snap.)
5. Now, move fast: Add baking soda and the nuts.
Remove the mixture from the heat and use the oiled spatula to stir in a bit of baking soda (between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon—lest you end up with honeycomb). The baking soda reacts with any acid in the syrup—here, that's from the corn syrup; elsewhere, it might be found in brown sugar, molasses, honey, or maple syrup—to release carbon dioxide (that's why your mixture will foam up when you add it). Those air bubbles mean a brittle that's not so hard as to be dangerous to eat.
When you add the baking soda, it's also your opportunity to throw in spices—like a pinch of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, or cayenne—and extracts—a teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract—and zests (like lemon, orange, grapefruit, or lime).
Working quickly, fold in the nuts (it should be a bit easier now that the caramel has been aerated by the baking soda reaction).
6. Spread it out; twiddle those thumbs.
Use the oiled spatula to dump the mixture onto your prepared baking sheet, spreading and patting it down into an even layer (it needn't be perfect, as you'll be smashing it to pieces). Before it has a chance to set, give the candy a sprinkle of sea salt, which will lessen any aching sweetness.
Wait for the brittle to cool completely, at least 30 minutes. This will feel like a long time: Watch a TV show; do a jumping jack or two.
8. Break it up!
Thanks to the butter and the baking soda, our brittle was easy to break into pieces by hand. If you use less (or no) butter or forgo the baking soda, you can always transfer the brittle to a cutting board and grab a knife (or a hammer!).
Divide the batch into two containers; hide one of them under your bed. Give the other one to a loved one and never mention how much the recipe actually yielded.
Are you a chocolate hater (or "meh"-er)? If so, what do you like to eat on Valentine's Day? Tell us in the comments below.