Christmas is done and dusted. The ham has been consumed or frozen for later use, the last delicious morsels of shortbread eaten and if you’re anything like me, the forgotten plum pudding has been stored for ‘Christmas in July’ use later in the year. The other thing I have a lot of, is nuts. Usually very popular on Christmas Day I had perhaps underestimated the laziness of a generation who had to actually crack the nuts rather than simply snip open a bag. At the end of the day, there were very few shells for the compost.
Why do we eat nuts at Christmas? Nuts are seasonal and would have been harvested before the cold set in, to provide a source of food through the long dark winters of the Northern Hemisphere. They are high in protein and fat and every little bit would have counted when the snow was deep and crisp and even. Those great lovers of a refined party, The Victorians, introduced many of the concepts we identify with our Christmas celebrations of today. The Christmas tree, Christmas crackers, fruit mince pies, roast turkey and the giving of gifts on Christmas rather than New Year’s Day. Originally these gifts were small trifles – incidentally, trifle with cream, jelly and custard as we know it today is also a Victorian invention – such as fruit, nuts and handmade love tokens. Gilded walnuts also decorated the tree. So it seems somewhere between eking out an existence in the frozen countryside and elegant gatherings to celebrate imported Germanic Christmas traditions, the nut secured itself at the centre of the festive table.
Though nuts are an autumnal crop and Christmas is celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere in summer, you can’t keep a good tradition down. I have cracked most of the nuts now and stored them the freezer in zip lock bags for use throughout the year but decided to make up some praline with the pecans. Pecans and any type of sugar concoction are a match made in heaven. The completed praline can be stirred into ice cream, scattered over an iced cake, ground finely in a food processor for inclusion in chocolates, eaten directly from the container…
- 1 cup shelled pecans (or other fresh nuts)
- 1 cup caster sugar
- ¼ cup water
Warning! This recipes involves hot sugar syrup so please be careful as sugar burns are serious.
- Place the pecans or other nuts on baking paper on a tray and put into an 180c preheated oven. Roast for 8 – 10 minutes (watch to make sure the nuts don’t scorch). Pecans are a very soft nut and will take less time to roast than a dense nut like an almond, which may need several more minutes.
- Remove nuts from the oven and allow to cool.
- Place sugar and water in a small saucepan and gently heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Once dissolved, turn up the heat and bring liquid to the boil for around 4 – 6 minutes.
- Watch the boiling toffee. It will turn from clear to pale gold to golden amber in a matter of moments. The minute it starts to darken, remove it from the heat as it will continue to brown in the saucepan.
- Carefully pour the toffee over the tray of nuts, trying to cover as many nuts as possible.
- Set tray aside to allow toffee to cool and place empty saucepan in sink and fill with cold water to allow sugar coating to dissolve.
- When the toffee has cooled and set (around 10 minutes), break the pecan praline into big or small pieces or chop coarsely with a knife.
- Store pecan praline in airtight container for future use (see note* below).
*For those living in humid conditions, pop some extra insurance into the container in the form of a silica gel sachet from an old vitamin jar. This will help to absorb extra moisture and reduce the chances of the toffee becoming a sticky mess.