Gift It: Sweet & Spicy Nuts

(The lead photo is entered in the CLICK! Photo Event sponsored by Bee and Jai at Jugalbandi -- a chance for amateur photographers to play with a food theme and get some feedback. December's theme is, of course, Nuts!
Is this droolworthy??)

It's the season for gifting and remembering not just family and friends, but colleagues and teachers, veterinarians and mechanics all those who touch our lives on a regular basis. A gift from the kitchen, like all hand-made gifts, is a gift of love. But many folks are wary of sweet treats at this time of year when so many sweet temptations are swirling and calling ("Taste me" . . . "I only come around once a year")

With this in mind, I opted to make Sweet and Spicy Nuts, instead of our usual Dark Chocolate Merlot Truffles. Tree nuts, such as the almonds, walnuts and pecans used here, provide a healthy dose of unsaturated fats
which can reduce the LDL (bad) cholesterol in one's blood and lower the risk of heart disease. (A) In fact, since 2003, the US Food and Drug Administration has recommended daily consumption of 1.5 ounces of tree nuts as part of a low saturated fat and cholesterol diet to reduce the risk of heart disease. Tree nuts are also an excellent source of heart-healthy vitamins and minerals. Although the FDA does warn against sweetened nuts because of the higher calories, these nuts are much less sweet than commercially sweetened nuts, and they're on offer as a healthier alternative to my beloved chocolate truffles.

This easy recipe coats the the nuts in egg white and spiced sugar mix, then they are baked for until the coating hardens. The recipe is incredibly versatile
change up the nuts, or the spiced sugar mix to suit your taste (try cumin, cinnamon, chipotle or Aleppo peppers, Chinese five spice, quatre epices, pumpkin pie spice, whatever your imagination conjures up!).

The final bonus is that you can dress up these nuts for the harried gourmets in your life as part of a Recipe Kit. Include the nuts, and your pre-made sauce or salad dressing, and a recipe card to put it all together in a snap. This year I tried to re-create the wonderful flavor of a sweet and spicy shrimp with candied walnuts dish we had in a downtown restaurant: the pre-mixed sauce and a cup of spiced nuts will allow the recipient of this package to add his or her own chicken or shrimp, and have a gourmet Chinese meal on the dinner table in in the time it takes to cook a pot of rice. But maybe you have a chicken salad recipe, or a stir-fried noodle dish, anything you think your recipient will enjoy to which these nuts will add that "je ne sais qua" touch.

1 cup sugar
2 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 large egg white
6 cups unsalted nuts, such as walnuts, pecans, natural almonds and/or cashews

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Grease two 101/2” x 151/2” jelly-roll pans. (Or do in batches)

In small bowl, stir sugar, salt, cinnamon, black pepper and cayenne.

In large bowl, beat egg white to soft peaks. Stir nuts into egg white. Sprinkle sugar mixture; toss well until nuts are completely coated.

Spread nuts evenly in pans, no overlapping. Bake nuts 25 minutes, or until golden brown and dry, stir twice during baking. Quickly transfer nuts to waxed paper, and spread in single layer to cool until hard. Package as desired in tightly covered container and store at room temperature up to a month.

Gifting tip: These beautiful heavy cut-glass tumblers made perfect vessels for the nuts before wrapping. After nibbling their heart-healthy treats, the recipients can use the glasses as a candy dish, votive candle holder, or a drinking cup (what a novel idea) in lieu of disposable cups at the office. Thrift stores and flea markets often carry vintage glass, and even crystal, alternatives to expensive but cheaply-made "partyware." Don't be afraid to re-use and recycle!

(A) Read more about the health benefits of tree nuts in this
WebMD article: The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Nuts

More Holiday Gift Ideas:
Green Tea Shortbread, Nut Horns, Cocoa Cherry Biscotti