Sometimes simple things can be a bit tricky.
My parents raved about my sister’s macheteniste’s nut cookies. “The best cookies I ever ate,” my dad insisted. “And Levana says the recipe is very simple: just sugar, nuts and egg whites stirred together.”
Naturally, I had to pin down the exact recipe. Turns out, Levana’s almond clusters are close cousins to Carine Goren’s almond thins, but with a few crucial twists: (1) the nuts are slivered instead of sliced; (2) the nuts are piled high into little haystacks instead of being spread into a super thin layer; and (3) the sugar is brown instead of white.
These few changes make the difference between a recipe my dad really liked (the almond thins) and one he was crazy about (Levana’s almond clusters). The brown sugar gives huge uptick in flavor, making the sweetness of the nut cookies more interesting, less flat. I think that adding vanilla and almond extract ramps up the flavor even more, but that is an optional addition.
The difficulty was that Levana is the sort of cook who makes everything by instinct instead of a precise recipe. The recipe I started with was “mix together 3 egg whites, a scant cup brown sugar and enough nuts so that the nuts are just coated.” About a pound of nuts? “Yes, about . . . at least!”
I had to experiment a bit to figure out the right ratio of nuts to sugar syrup. The first few batches of cookies had sugar syrup seeping out of them. The sugar syrup that seeped out on the baking sheet puffed up as the nut clusters baked, making strange looking, crunchy protrusions from the cookies.
Also, the baking time was originally “until brown.” That took figuring out, too. Some batches of cookies came out a bit chewy instead of crunchy. It took me a while to figure out that the solution was drying out the nut clusters in a turned off oven.
With these issues ironed out, these addictive cookies are indeed extremely simple to make.
Levana’s Almond Clusters
The key to this simple recipe is to make sure that there is the right ratio of nuts to sugar syrup. If there is too much syrup in relation to the nuts, the syrup will seep out of the nut clusters and pool on the baking sheet. This will make the nut clusters look a bit messy and is a waste of the sugar syrup. As you spoon out the nuts onto the baking sheet, make sure that the excess sugar syrup has drained off. If there is extra syrup in the mixing bowl after you have spooned out all the nuts, add some more nuts to the bowl. DO NOT try to spoon the extra syrup over the nut clusters on the baking sheet. It will just seep out of the nuts clusters and make a mess on the baking sheet.
Another trick is drying out the nut clusters in a turned off oven if they turn out chewy instead of crunchy. While brown sugar is much more flavorful than plain white, it also attracts moisture and lends itself more to chewiness than crispiness.
3/4 cup plus 1 Tbl. light brown sugar (5 ounces) (or 1/2 cup dark brown sugar and rounded 1/4 cup white sugar)
3 egg whites (3 ounces)
1 tsp. vanilla, optional
1/4 tsp. almond extract, optional
18-24 ounces slivered almonds (can use other chopped nuts or sesame seeds)
In a mixing bowl, combine the sugar and egg whites. Add the vanilla and almond extract, if using. Mix in 18 ounces of the nuts. The nuts should be just barely coated with the sugar mixture. If you see sugar mixture pooling at the bottom of the bowl when you stir the mixture, you will need to add more nuts.
Spoon out tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto parchment or non-stick foil lined baking sheets. If you see sugar mixture seeping out from the spoonfuls of nuts on the baking sheet, then you probably didn’t add enough nuts to the mixture. The nuts clusters will still be delicious–you will just have extra little crunchy bits of sugar on the baking sheet. If you have extra sugar mixture pooled in the bottom of the bowl after you spoon out all the clusters, just add more nuts to the bowl and stir to coat the nuts.
Bake the nut clusters at 350 degrees until brown, about 14-15 minutes. Don’t try to move the nut clusters until they are cool. If they are soft and chewy after cooling for ten minutes, you can put the baking sheet of nut clusters in the turned off oven to dry out a bit so that they get crunchy (unless you prefer chewy).
Makes 4 dozen nut clusters.