Sunday, December 7, 2003

Love that nutty taste


Holiday bakers get cracking with variety of flavors

By Courtney Taylor
Gannett News Service

In most families, holidays bring out the nuts - the edible ones.

Nuts have been treasured for their rich flavors since man began hunting and gathering.

Not only could cave dwellers count on those trees dropping food at their feet, but nuts also offered a cache of protein and good sources of fat.

These days, we don't rely on nuts for sustenance. But they are still gathered, stored and treasured for their sweet earthy flavors.

Know your nuts

• Almonds are the most popular nuts in the American kitchen. Ivory in color with an oval shape and smooth texture, they have a sweet, delicate taste that is wonderful in breads, cookies, cakes, fillings, candies and decorations.

• Brazil nuts are soft, ivory-colored nutmeat covered in a thin brown skin and enclosed in a three-sided, hard, dark brown shell. With their sweet, soft, buttery flavor (a little like coconut), they are good in desserts or pastries.

• Cashews are smooth, tan-colored, kidney-shaped nuts with a rich, sweet flavor. Raw, the cashew has little flavor, but roasting brings out its richness.

• Chestnuts are available in late fall and winter. Their mild, subtle flavor complements other winter ingredients like cranberries, apples and pears. The hard, mahogany-colored shell may be removed by cutting an X on the chestnut's flat side and baking it in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. This loosens the shell and makes it easy to peel.

• Hazelnuts or filberts are grape-sized, acorn-shaped nuts, sold shelled or unshelled. After the shell is removed, hazelnuts must be toasted in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes to remove the bitter-tasting skin. The rich, sweet flavor of this nut has a remarkable affinity for chocolate.

• Macadamia nuts have a crunchy, sweet, buttery-rich flavor that complements other tropical nuts and fruits, as well as white chocolate.

• Peanuts are sold in a variety of forms - shelled, unshelled, salted, unsalted, roasted, dry roasted or raw. Their distinctive, buttery flavor makes them a wonderful foil for very sweet confections and rich chocolate.

• Pecans are sold shelled, unshelled, whole and chopped. A smooth, reddish brown, inch-long oval shell encloses two golden brown crinkled lobes with ivory-colored meat. Their buttery, soft-textured, bittersweet taste is enhanced when toasted and marries well with spices, winter fruits and chocolate.

• Pistachios are sold shelled, unshelled, roasted, salted or unsalted and are coveted for their full flavor, sweetness, and beautiful green color.

• Walnuts come in light brown, easy-to-crack shells. Crisp and meaty, the walnut has a fresh, delicate flavor and is great in pastries.

Buying and using

When buying unshelled nuts, look for those that are smooth, heavy for their size, have no cracks or holes and do not rattle when shaken. Shelled nuts should be uniform in color and size and plump. Discolored or shriveled nuts mean they are old.

Because of their high fat content, all nuts have a tendency to turn rancid once shelled. If you plan to store them longer than a couple of weeks, buy them in the shell and shell them as you use them. Shelled nuts are best kept in airtight containers in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

To toast nuts, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts out in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until nuts are golden brown, about 5-10 minutes. Stir a few times while toasting to ensure even browning.

When adding nuts to batters, prevent them from sinking to the bottom by coating them with flour and heating them in the oven for a short time before adding to the batter. The heat treatment ensures that the flour remains adhered to the nuts, instead of dissolving into the cake batter. The properties of the flour will help suspend these large solids in the batter. Nuts also should be mixed in last, to allow the nuts to remain crisp.




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