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Caramelization takes hazelnuts from simply savory to sensationally sublime. The caramelization technique is so easy, and takes so little time, candied hazelnuts can fill in as the snack food of choice for a last-minute get-together just as easily as they can serve as the main flavoring ingredient in just about any cake or cookie recipe. If you want to balance the sweetness and add depth to the caramelization, add a piquant spice -- a pinch of chili powder or a smidge of paprika -- when you mix the hazelnuts with the sugar.
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Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil for every cup of hazelnuts you want to peel. Add the nuts to the boiling water.
Blanch the hazelnuts for 3 minutes. Spoon out a few hazelnuts and hold them under cold water. Squeeze a couple to check if they slip from the skins easily; if not, blanch the remaining nuts for another minute or 2.
Drain the nuts and cool them down under cold running water. Over a bowl, pinch the nuts between thumb and forefinger to slip them from their skins and into the bowl.
Transfer the peeled hazelnuts to a kitchen cloth and blot the surface moisture with a paper towel. Spread the hazelnuts in an even layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; place the pan on the center oven rack.
Toast the nuts until aromatic and slightly browned, about 10 to 12 minutes. Take the nuts out of the oven and let them cool to room temperature.
Pour 1/2 pound of brown or white sugar and a pinch of kosher salt in a mixing bowl for every 1/2 pound of hazelnuts.
Add spices to the sugar to taste, if desired. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg are classic toasted-nut spices, but they aren't necessary for caramelization; they simply add a hint of flavor.
Pour the toasted hazelnuts in the bowl of sugar. Add a couple of tablespoons of water -- just enough for the sugar to adhere to the hazelnuts -- and stir to combine.
Transfer the hazelnuts to a heavy-bottomed skillet and set it on the stove over medium heat. Cook the hazelnuts until the sugar seizes, about 10 minutes; seizing indicates the water has cooked off.
Stir the hazelnuts occasionally using a silicone spatula as the sugar cooks. Cook the hazelnuts until they develop a rich bronze color. If at any time you smell scorching or burning sugar, remove the pan from the stove and stir the hazelnuts to cool them down.
Transfer the caramelized hazelnuts to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread the hazelnuts in an even layer and let them reach room temperature.
Break the caramelized hazelnuts apart as needed. Store caramelized hazelnuts in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Pulse the blanched and skinned hazelnuts in a food processor until coarsely ground before you caramelize them if you want to use them as a crushed topping. The caramelization method is the same for crushed hazelnuts as it is for whole hazelnuts.