When I visited Itty Bitty Farm in the City for the first time, I brought some homemade candied walnuts to thank Heidi for letting a total stranger pet her goats and ask a bunch of invasive questions about keeping it together as an urban farmer, parent, and spouse.
Sure, walnuts are full of alpha-lino-whatever acid and are a superfood and all, but I wasn’t really thinking of Heidi’s omega-3 intake when I decided they’d make a good gift. I was thinking about where those nuts came from, the love and labor that went into shelling them, and my family’s traditions around that labor.
As a kid, living in Fresno with my mom and her parents—longtime farmers from Texas—I helped shell walnuts and pecans with a nut cracker my grandfather rigged up by hand. My grandmother turned 90 in January and that nut cracker is on the far side of thirty; both are going strong. Granny shelled two hundred pounds of walnuts last year—down from her usual three hundred, she says, because the grower’s son just took over the business and forgot to set aside her full share.
Every time my mom and I meet at Granny’s house, we all crack walnuts until our arms and fingers hurt, taking turns yanking the wooden lever and picking nut halves out of the busted hulls. My mother and I get pounds and pounds of hand-shelled walnuts for birthdays and Christmas and whenever Granny thinks we need more, like when I became a mom myself.
In the first days after our baby girl was born, my mother kept my dazed little family from starving. She fed me spinach salads chock full of “Granny walnuts” she’d jazzed up with spices and her homemade candied orange peel. Nothing before or since has tasted so incredibly delicious, like salty, orangey love. Was that my new-mama oxytocin talking, or just some pretty kick-ass candied walnuts? Recipe follows—you be the judge!
These are easy enough to make with a toddler pin-balling around your kitchen, and I’ve adapted the recipe for either candied peel or fresh zest—which, I now know, is not just a snooty word for orange peel! (It’s the orange part, minus the white pith.) I’ve tried this recipe with walnuts, pecans, and almonds, and the walnuts are my hands-down favorite.
Hope you enjoy!
Kick-Ass Orange-Spiced Walnuts
Makes 2 1/2 cups
1 egg white
1/4 cup sugar, minus 1 teaspoon if using candied peel
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle or other chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/2 cups walnuts
Very finely grated zest from two medium oranges (about 2 teaspoons) OR 2 1/4 tablespoons finely chopped candied orange peel
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Beat the egg white until soft and foamy, with no liquid left in the bottom of the bowl. Combine the sugar, salt, and spices; stir into the egg white, along with the orange zest or candied peel. Add the nuts and stir until well coated. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using a rubber spatula, scrape together all the zest-spice -egg goo left in the bowl, and drizzle it over the nuts.
2. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven. Separate the nuts and stir them around a bit, then spread in a single layer again. (It’s OK to skip this step if you’re pressed for time.) Turn the oven down to 250 degrees and immediately return nuts to bake until they are golden brown and not raw-tasting, about 10 to 20 minutes. (Don’t worry if they’re not crunchy at this point; they’ll crisp up as they cool down.) Set the pan on a wire rack to cool, and break up any nuts that are stuck together. Burn your fingers eating them straight off the pan, or let them cool completely and store in an airtight container.