I don’t know when or where this conventional hammer -- I assume purchased from a neighborhood hardware store -- became a ubiquitous kitchen tool of my mother’s. It had an expected heavy metallic head, and it probably thought it would end up on a construction site pounding away at penny nails. Instead, I hold fond memories of my mother sitting at the kitchen table and gently tapping away at the concrete exterior of various nuts sandwiched between two kitchen towels. But perhaps it was the hammer’s wooden handle, painted a deep, vibrant red that made it stand out from the rest of its kind - and tempted my mother to rescue it from a life hanging in a cold garage. Over the years, its brilliance faded to a vermillion patina with little nicks and dings at its base, and its head shiny from years of liberating nuts and their oils.
Now, none of this is to imply that my mother was handy when it came to hanging a picture or tapping down the warped edge of a floor board – that simply would not be on my mother’s and her hammer’s honey-do list.
The memory that I hold for that utilitarian instrument is seeing it positioned in my mother’s small hands gently tapping on the shells of nuts. We were a nut-crazy household – no one had a problem with walnuts, pecans or almonds being strewn about. In fact, it seems that almost every one of her pastries contained one or more nuts: sour cream-apple-walnut cake, carrot cake with pecans, chocolate-dipped almond butter cookies. There always could be found clear glass gallon jars, originally filled with sour-garlic pickles, that got recycled into urns for the long-term storage of nuts once they were emancipated from their hard shell casings.
That culinary soldier weathered the trials and tribulations of our home - quietly rapping a room shared by three napping toddlers; indulging enthusiastic little hands anxious to assist with the task; willingly absorbing the changes of a house being vacated one by one; to finally being stored away in a drawer rarely being called to action. I hope that I will stumble upon that trusty kitchen mallet somewhere in storage and offer it a new home.
Spiced Candied Nuts and Popcorn
1/4-cup canola oil
1/4-cup popping corn
1/2- cup cashew nuts
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4-teaspoon fennel seeds
1/8-teaspoon cayenne pepper
1-teaspoon ground coriander seed
1-tablespoon unsalted butter
Heat an 8-quart saucepan over a high heat, and add the oil and popping corn. Place a lid on and move the pan over the flame to fully pop the corn. Once the corn has popped transfer to a large work bowl, which has been lightly oiled, along with the cashews and almonds.
In a 2-quart saucepan add the sugar and water, and over a high heat dissolve the sugar cooking it until it is a dark amber color. Remove from the heat and immediately whisk in the fennel seeds, cayenne pepper and coriander seed and butter. Then carefully pour the sugar over the popped corn, and toss to thoroughly distribute and coat the popped corn mixture.
Transfer the popped corn mixture to a lightly oiled baking tray, and cool completely.
Break into clusters to serve.