My mother-in-law was a great cook.
When my husband and I were dating in college, we’d often go to his parents’ house on Sundays for dinner — rich spaghetti sauce that had been simmering all day on the stove, chicken breasts baked in a buttery crust of Bisquick, a moist, decadent chocolate-chip Bundt cake straight from your dreams.
One of my favorite things she made was perhaps the simplest-seeming: sugared walnuts. She made them every Christmas, and from the first time I tried them I was obsessed. For the next several years, she’d always have a batch made just for me.
My sweet mother-in-law passed away tragically in 1995, and over the past two and a half decades I’ve done my best to recreate some of her recipes. Some have become staples in our house (come over for dinner and you’ll most likely get a plate of spaghetti covered by her sumptuous sauce that’s been cooking all day, followed by a hefty slice of chocolate-chip Bundt cake), and some I’ve tried, failed, and given up on, realizing that it’s better to have the memory of her delicious creations than of my failures.
A few years after she died I decided to try my hand at making the sugared walnuts. They only had like five ingredients (right up my alley), so how hard could they be? Like most candy, the success depended completely on the boiling point. Get it to 242° and you’d have sugary perfection; get it a degree cooler or hotter and you’d have walnuts that tasted just not quite right.
I had triumphs with the walnuts.
I also had a few disasters (oh, 242°, you specific bitch, you are my nemesis).
And after about four or five years and more failures than successes, I gave up.
Until this year.
I mean, 2020 has already kicked us to the curb, I figured one failed batch of sugared walnuts wasn’t going to break me.
But I was wrong.
After braving the COVID germs at Costco for a jumbo bag of walnuts (because I refuse to pay the same price for 1/3 of the amount of walnuts at the store, even if it means we’ll have walnuts until 2022), I unearthed the old recipe I’d copied from her back in the early ’90s on my Suzy’s Zoo recipe cards (my first set of recipe cards, I believe) and gathered my ingredients.
I boiled the honey and sugar to exactly 242° (thank you, digital thermometer) and stirred in 4 1/2 cups of the walnuts (about half the bag). I spread them carefully on the parchment paper and started to clean up.
And that’s when I saw the bottle of vanilla on the counter.
The unused bottle of vanilla.
The bottle of vanilla I was to have opened and put into the hot liquid before adding the walnuts — a small amount, sure, but an imperative ingredient.
SHIT SHIT SHIT.
After storming around the kitchen berating myself, my cooking competency, and 2020 (obviously), I furiously scrubbed out the saucepan.
I couldn’t give up.
For some (obvious) reason, I needed these sugared walnuts this year more than ever, and by god, I was going to keep trying until I got them right.
I mean, I had 10 cups of walnuts, so why not?
So I made a second batch while the first one was still cooling, effectively using up almost an entire bag of Costco walnuts. I boiled, again, to precisely 242°, made damn sure to put in the vanilla, and spread another 4 1/2 cups of walnuts out on a second cookie sheet to harden.
And you guys, guess what?
I now have nine cups of delicious sugared walnuts in a year when I cannot safely give them out to people.
Because as it turns out, the vanilla isn’t actually as imperative as I thought.
Both pans turned out to taste exactly as I remembered them. (Honestly, I did a blind taste test, and I couldn’t tell which came from the non-vanilla pan and which ones did.)
Am I mad I used the next year’s ration of walnuts? Not at all.
Because when I put a sweet, sugary cluster in my mouth, I’m instantly transported back into a time when my mother-in-law gleaned great pleasure from filling our bellies and our hearts with love. And I can still hear her laughter, as I know she’d be chuckling at this story.
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp vanilla (or not, but I would)
4 1/2 cups walnuts (or other nuts)
Bring sugar, honey, salt, and water to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring frequently, to 242°.
Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla (or don’t), and add walnuts.
Stir until walnuts are coated.
Spread on wax paper or parchment paper and let harden (about 3 – 4 hours). Break apart.