How to make street cart style peanuts, those ubiquitous nuggets that perfume the New York City streets with their achingly sweet scent. If there's any sense memory that will put you right back in Midtown just trying to get across the freaking street, this is it.
This post is part of the Eating New York series.
The hot nuts story
Hot nuts--I call them that because that's what the vendors call out--are a true immigrant story. Brought to New York by Argentinians looking to make a buck (and artfully dodge the Egyptian street cart mafia, apparently) in the late eighties, the nuts are the legacy of French immigrants to Argentina who applied praline making techniques to abundant local peanuts. Now the carts are a franchise operation and the bright orange logo and umbrella are de rigueur.
The secret ingredient is: powdered honey
No, you can't skip it. Some people will tell you you can, but I'm here to tell you that it ain't so. The powdered honey (or granulated honey) is precisely what gives Nuts 4 Nuts their particular, intoxicating scent. Fortunately for us, there is kosher powdered honey (OU) on the market. (Less fortunately for us, it's not exactly cheap, but what price are you going put on authenticity, huh?)
A note: hot nuts are sickly sweet. You'll see other methods out there that use a lot less sugar. But we're not making just any candied nuts here, we're rolling our eyes at tourists while elbowing our way to train at 47th, and for that we need way more sugar than we'd normally add.
The street cart nuts method
You start off by whisking together the sugar and honey in a relatively small amount of water. You then cook the peanuts in the mixture. At first they'll look like they're swimming in liquid. Then, the liquid turns syrupy and it's time to lower the heat and cook it down, stirring, for another minute or so. You take the pan off the heat when it looks about like this:
You want the sugar and powdered honey to melt into a medium-golden syrup that coats the nuts, like really coats them thickly. As it cools, it'll crystallize for the telltale hot nuts coating.
If you check out the Nuts4Nuts website (where, incidentally, one can book a street cart for events, not kosher, unfortunately), the first pic in their carousel is an action shot of a hot skillet full of nuts. (At least it was at the time that I wrote this.) I'm not sure they were intending to give away trade secrets, but bam, there it is. You can see precisely the way the hot honey and sugar syrup is supposed to look when it's perfectly caramelized, just before you take the nuts off the heat. This is what we'll shortly be replicating.
Which nuts exactly?
I think of peanuts as the quintessential hot street nut, so that's what I've used here. I'd say that next up, in terms of street food tradition, is cashews, and finally, less commonly, almonds. You can substitute whichever you like, or make a mix with ½ cup of each.
You do need to start with raw or dry roasted nuts, because roasted nuts that have oil added to them which will prevent the candy coating from adhering to the nut in classical form. Look for just the word "peanuts" on the ingredients label (it's surprisingly hard to find). The ingredients label on packaged Nuts4Nuts explicitly does not list salt, which I was tempted to add, but nope. Those hot nuts guys clearly know what they're doing.
Hot Nuts! New York City Street Cart Style Candied Peanuts (parve)
- 1 ½ cups raw or dry roasted shelled peanuts - no oil added - 220 g
- ¾ cup granulated sugar - 150 g
- 2 Tbsp powdered honey
- ¼ cup water - 60 ml
- In a medium to large skillet or frying pan, combine the sugar, powdered honey, and water. Whisk to combine.
- Turn the heat on medium-high and add the peanuts to the pan. Turn with a spatula to coat the nuts.
- Continue cooking over medium-high heat until the liquid becomes syrupy and thickened, 5-7 minutes. It should still be a medium golden color.
- Reduce the heat to low and cook for 1 minute longer.
- Spread out the hot nuts on a lined sheet pan and leave them to cool. After 1-2 minutes, the sugar coating will begin to crystallize and dry. Break up any clumps of peanuts. Eat hot, or store for later in a sealed container.