This is a story about two snacks, similar in nearly every way. Both were addictively sweet, salty, spicy, and crunchy. They were inspired by the same blog—indeed, the blog post of one referenced the other. They were intended for the same festive New Year’s celebration. Spicy caramel corn and spiced pecans: they would seem to go together like New Year’s Eve and champagne.

Sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy snack #1

But tonight, on this fateful New Year’s Eve Eve, only one of these snacks would survive to see the celebration. One has been carefully sealed in a freezer bag and stowed away for the bus trip to New York. The other has been laid to rest, in the trash.

Sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy snack #2

It was so sad. The nuts were so delicious. But, you see, as the nuts and popcorn were cooling and I was beginning to clean the kitchen, I knocked over a glass measuring cup that I’d precariously balanced in the drying rack. Even though it was just a few inches above the counter, it managed to shatter into a remarkable number of pieces—some of which ended up in my beautiful spicy pecans. And I love my friends too much to feed them shards of broken glass. I’m thoughtful like that.

So the caramel popcorn will be traveling to New York without its sibling. In a way, it’s for the best—the popcorn is slightly trickier to make and, with its melted sugar component, much more difficult to clean up after, even with this helpful tip. It’s something I can see making pretty much just for special occasions. But the spiced pecans are dead simple—they were ready to go in the oven before the oven had even finished preheating. They’re special enough for December 31 but easy enough for, say, January 3. Which is when I expect I’ll be whipping up the next, glass-free, batch.

Sugar-and-spice candied nuts
From Smitten Kitchen

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound walnut or pecan halves or whole peeled hazelnuts
1 egg white, room temperature
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Mix sugars, salt, cayenne, and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside.

Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add walnuts, and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, and toss until evenly coated. Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet fitted with parchment paper.

Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven, and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool, pour the nuts into a bowl, breaking up any that stick together.

Spicy caramel popcorn
From Smitten Kitchen

Nonstick cooking spray or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 cups salted peanuts (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt

Lightly coat two large, heatproof rubber spatulas, a very large mixing bowl and two large baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or a thin slick of oil.

In a large saucepan or pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the popcorn kernels, cover and keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the prepared bowl, removing any unpopped kernels. Toss with salted peanuts, if using. [Note: I prepared the popcorn using a great method I learned from Alton Brown, ages ago. Put about 1/4 cup of kernels in a plain brown paper lunch bag. Fold the top of the bag over a couple of times. Microwave for about 2 minutes, or until popping slows to 5 seconds between pops.]

In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and cayenne pepper.

Have the two large baking sheets ready. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, salt and 1/2 cup water. Cook over high heat, without stirring, until the mixture becomes a light golden-yellow caramel, 10 to 14 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully whisk in the baking soda mixture (the mixture will bubble up).

Immediately pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn and don’t fuss if it doesn’t all come out of the pot — you’ll have plenty. Working quickly and carefully, use the prepared spatulas to toss the caramel and popcorn together, as if you were tossing a salad, until the popcorn is well coated. [Note: if you look at the photo above, you’ll see that I didn’t toss the popcorn well enough, and there are puddles of caramel that probably shouldn’t be there. “Working quickly and carefully” always scares me into being too hasty.]

Spread the popcorn onto the baking sheets and quickly separate them into small pieces while still warm. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Once cool, store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Makes 4 quarts.

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