Croccante di Natale
Croccante di Natale, also known as Croccante di Mandorle is Abruzzo's classic Christmas confection. Toasted almonds are enrobed in a shiny amber sugar coating. Each Christmas my grandmother, Angela Barra Crocetti, shelled bag after bag of fragrant almonds to make this crystalline delight. She gently toasted the almonds first, and even today, some forty years after I last made it with her, the smell of toasting almonds transports me across the generations to her kitchen. Although croccante can be made with any nuts you prefer, in Abruzzo at Christmas, this candy is almonds, all the way. You can serve this confection broken into shards or cut into diamonds. It makes a striking presentation set into a scoop of ice cream or also pulverized it in a food processor and used to top ice cream or in cannoli filling.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Grease or butter a large sheet pan. Set aside.
- Spread almonds on a large rimmed baking sheet, and toast on middle rack of oven 8 to 10 minutes or until fragrant, stirring 2 or 3 times.
- Remove from oven, and set aside.
- Meanwhile, combine water and sugar in a 4 quart saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat to dissolve sugar completely, stirring occasionally, about 6 to 7 minutes.
- Use a pastry brush dipped in water or cover with a tight fitting lid for 3 to 4 minutes to wash down crystals from sides of pan.
- Increase heat to medium and continue cooking, swirling pan occasionally, until the sugar has taken on an amber color, about 15 minutes more.
- Remove from heat and add warm almonds, tossing gently to evenly coat the nuts.
- Pour mixture onto prepared sheet, scraping pan as little as possible.
- Rub half a cut lemon over the confection to flatten it.
- Cut into diamond shapes while still warm or cool completely, and break into shards.
- Store in airtight container at room temperature.
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To make a smooth glossy croccante you must dissolve all the sugar and cook it to an amber color without forming any crystals. The trick to avoid crystal formation is to stir the boiling sugar as little as possible. In the initial step of dissolving the sugar, it is important to use a pastry brush to wash down any crystals that form on the sides of the pan as the sugar boils; or you can put a tight fitting lid on the pan for 3 to 4 minutes to dissolve the crystals. Once the sugar has dissolved completely, do not stir the pot at all, just swirl it very gently if the sugar seems to be coloring unevenly. Watch the sugar carefully as it cooks, and remove it from the heat once it has turned an amber color. It will be over 330 degrees at this point and will continue to cook as you combine the nuts. At this point stir gently just to coat the nuts, and scrape the pan as little as possible as you pour the mixture onto the prepared sheet. Finally a few words about safety. Place a bowl of ice water nearby, and plunge your hand in it should you get some sugar on yourself. Next, don't leave the pot untended. And because the sugar is so hot, banish the kids and pets from the kitchen!