Bet Hamlet would have felt just the same if he’d headed to the kitchen with a view to whipping up some nut brittle. Suddenly questions about life and death, and our place in the world, pale in comparison to the challenge of questions about ingredients, temperature, cooking time, oven-type and just about every aspect of this seemingly simple candy. (Which I definitely intend to make, but haven’t yet. I think you’ll see why.)
While we still have honeycomb to enjoy, I’m once again getting a hankering to draw my thermometer from its sheath (ok, take it out the drawer, but that just sounds so undramatic) and try something new. It all started with a friend bringing dad some raw cashew nuts in return for him assisting with a tax problem. (In dad’s world, trust me, that makes perfect sense.) I immediately started to think about what sweet I could make with them. (In my world, a gift for dad is a gift for me).
The obvious choice seemed to be cashew nut brittle. We all love it. My brother – who loves it especially – gave up all sweet treats for Lent, so a batch as we approach Easter would be particularly sweet to share with him. And really, it has got to be so simple to make, right? Wrong!
The first thing that struck me on my recipe search was that almost all recipes seemed to use roasted salted cashew nuts. Now, it has been a while since I ate cashew nut brittle, and it’s always been store bought, but I don’t remember it being salty at all. My whole idea was to use the raw nuts, which no-one likes to eat anyway. (Turns out I was wrong about that too, and dad fully intends to eat them as is). But, by this stage, I was so intrigued by the differences and unexpected twists in all the recipes I reviewed, I decided I still have to make brittle, and will buy the correct nuts.
I did find a couple of recipes which insisted on raw nuts, which just added to my uncertainty. So, I decided to be clever and search for basic peanut brittle recipes – which are bound to be more common – and then simply substitute cashews for whatever type of peanut they recommend. And, of course, almost all emphasised the need for unroasted, unsalted peanuts. Except for those that were adamant that the peanuts have to be roasted but not salted. And of course, those that insisted that the peanuts have to be roasted and salted. I’m thinking for my first attempt I will follow my gut and use roasted, unsalted cashews. To each her own it seems… (Oh yes, some say chop them, some say halve them, some say leave them whole.)
One of the first things I noticed was that none of the photos shown with the recipes looked like the brittle I think of when I think of brittle. The brittle I know is like dark brown glass, reminiscent of the bottle of a local brew. It’s thick enough to hold half or whole nuts and while pretty hard, cracks rather than shatters when you bite into it. The photos are all of an opaque beige-ish flat candy, with the nuts bumpily covered by it. This is because of the butter, and is why most people refer to the brittle as “creamy” and “buttery”, which is not what I associate “brittle” with. Mum says that using butter is going to result in cashew nut toffee instead. I don’t think that – with the correct temperatures and timing – this will necessarily happen, but do agree that the chances of ending up with chewy, toffee-like candy are greater with butter added to the syrup. And though there are a few recipes without butter too, these seem to have fewer positive responses from others who have tried them. Is buttery brittle really brittle though? I’m not convinced.
(Incidentally, almost all of the recipes for brittle with butter (butterle?) also have coarse salt sprinkled on the candy. Now this I really don’t remember from any brittle I’ve ever eaten.)
So, thus far I’m not sure about the nuts or the butter. Moving on…
Cashew nut or peanut brittle Definitely requires corn syrup. Or Definitely golden syrup. Or Definitely no syrup at all – melt (caramelise) sugar to make the syrup. I’m starting to see a trend here… I think the version that is closest to what I know is the simple melted sugar one. Although it’s not that simple, as one has to be careful not to burn it, and the process can take a while and the correct colour is an art. Here too, though, some say yellow, some say amber, and some don’t specify at all. And no temperature are given in these recipes.
To further drive me – ahem – nuts, the temperatures required for the different brittle recipes also vary. While most agree that the hard crack stage (300F/ 150C) comes into play at the end, there is a lot of variation (disagreement?) as to the correct temperature of the syrup at which to add the nuts. 240F, 260F, the first time it reaches 3ooF – who knows? I certainly don’t at this point. It’s also different depending on the butter vs. no butter approach. If you add the nuts too soon, they apparently burn. Too late, and you can’t stir them in. Take the pot off before it gets back to 300F/150C and you’ll get toffee. Leave it too long and you get burnt syrup that won’t come out the pot. I’m thinking I’ll take the average of all the recipes and all the commenters who disagreed and make it up from there, aiming for the 150/300 as the number that matters most.
One thing that is consistent across the recipes (yay! At last!) is that it helps to keep the buttered (sprayed) baking tray warm before spreading the brittle on it. That said, many people have noted that it doesn’t help enough and that they still struggle to get the set brittle out of the tray. One poor soul ended up throwing the pan and mixture away as is. The suggestion is rather to line the tray with baking paper, which can then be peeled off the set candy. I think I’ll spray the paper with non-stick spray just to be sure.
Oh, and just for good measure, there is a difference in the technique described to spread the brittle in the baking tray. You either use the back of a warm spoon to press and spread it flat across the tray, or you use two forks to lift and pull it into a bigger shape. Again, the butter inclusion seems to influence this decision, but not necesarily.
And then…it either keeps for ages, or must be eaten within 2 days or it starts oozing sugar and becoming chewy.
In summary then, the secret to making cashew nut brittle is obvious:
You just use roasted or unroasted, chopped or whole, salted or unsalted nuts, add butter or don’t, stir in only corn syrup or only golden syrup or only sugar, add the nuts at 115C/240F or 126C/260F, spread it flat or lift and pull it, butter the tray or use baking paper, and eat it soon or keep it.