I spent yesterday watching The Nutcracker Prince to get into the Christmas spirit. If you want to know what Kiefer Sutherland did before 24 and just how Phyllis Diller would bring her vocal talents to the voice of the Mouse Queen, then do check it out. It also got me thinking about making some sweets rather than baking something.
I’ve always associated sugared almonds with Christmas, even if most people think of them as wedding favours. So I thought I would give them a go. I knew that it would be difficult to make something that was perfectly smooth and coated in crisp sugar, but then I stumbled on a French recipe that looked promising. They have a sweet called pralines roses which are best described as rustic-looking sugared almonds with a vibrant pink colour. I had found my inspiration.
Well, it turns out there are few different types of praline – French pralines are made from almonds and sugar, Belgian has its chocolate pralines, and American pralines which are made with cream and have more of a fudge-like consistency. The name apparently comes from the magnificently-named César, Duke of Choiseul and Count of Plessis-Praslin, and the French variety were the creation of a chef in his household some time in the 1600s. I’m familiar with nuts coated in caramel and often sold around tourist hotspots, but in the case of pralines roses they come in a vibrant shade of pink. These little treats are a speciality of the city of Lyon, and while they are eye-catching, the reason for the distinctive colour is a bit of a mystery.
So I had a go at making sugared almonds! While pralines roses are made with almonds and hazelnuts, I went with just almonds, and toasted them lightly in the oven. This is not essential, and you can skip it if you want, but I like the nuttier flavour that balances out the sugar. The recipe itself looks complex, but it is actually fairly simple. You’re making a syrup, pouring it over the nuts, then agitating the mixture by stirring until the sugar crystallises. You just repeat this a few times until the coating is thick enough. The end result has a slightly knobbly appearance – they look a bit like mulberries. And if you want to make different colours, at the very end you can add a few drops of colour to a little syrup to coat the sugared almonds, as I did for the pink and pale green almonds. I also tried to make some gold almonds – coated in a golden-yellow sugar syrup, then dusted with gold lustre. They look lovely, even if the pictures don’t show it. Trust me!
Overall these were fun to make – you don’t need that much time to make them, and they do look pretty cool. Something I did find was that this works best if you use smaller amounts of syrup and aim for more thin coats than pouring all the sugar syrup over the nuts in one go. The latter approach leads to everything getting stuck together in a big sugary lump (because that absolutely did not happen to me when I got over-confident…). But follow the recipe and it does work. And with those pastel colours, you can sort of imagine them dancing around to the melody of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
To make sugared almonds:
• 250g whole almonds, either blanched or skin left on
• 225g sugar
• food colouring
1. Set the oven to 150°C (300°F) degrees. Lightly toast the almonds until they are fragrant, about 10-15 minutes – watch them carefully as you can quickly go from golden to burnt. Remove from the oven and put to one side.
2. Get a large non-stick frying pan. Add 75g sugar and a little water. Heat the mixture and bring to the boil. Once you see large bubbles, add the nuts and stir well. At first it will seem like a glossy sticky syrup, but keep heating and stirring until it turns grainy. The nuts will be roughly coated in sugar, with some sugar dust in the bottom of the pan.
3. Tip the lot onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Separate out the nuts and put them back in the frying pan. Do not heat it.
4. Put the sugar dust that did not stick to the almonds into a small saucepan, add another 75g sugar and some water . Bring to the boil, and let it reach 124 degrees. As the syrup is reaching the right temperature put the frying pan with the nuts on a medium heat. When the syrup is ready, pour this over the nuts, and quickly stir to coat the nuts. Keep stirring until it becomes grainy (just like the first time…). Keep gently warming the frying pan for a minute or so until the nuts are separated, and again there is some sugar dust on the bottom of the frying pan.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4, so you end up with the nuts coated with three layers of sugar. If you want coloured almonds, add a few drops of colouring to the last batch of syrup.
6. Transfer the sugared almonds to a sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and leave to dry in a low oven for about an hour (around 80°C/170°F). They will seem soft when you take them from the oven, but will go hard as they cool.
8. Allow the nuts to cool, and store them in an airtight container.