Chinese Crackerjacks

A great snack, this has everything but a prize. The textures are terrific, and the flavors are a tongue-provoking blend. The recipe comes from Barton Levenson, an unsung hero among Berkeley’s women chefs and a real Svengali of flavors.

A spice grinder is a must, unless you have a mortar and pestle and a lot of muscle. Or, you might use your coffee grinder, but only after cleaning it thoroughly.


  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon Freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon Freshly ground cinnamon
  • whole star anise, broken into 12 points
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons Szechwan peppercorns
  • teaspoons whole Java peppercorns (optional)
  • 2 cups mixed hazelnuts and peanuts, toasted and skinned


  1. Blend the sugar, salt, ground pepper, and cinnamon in a small bowl.
  2. Finely grind the anise, cloves, and the peppercorns in a spice grinder. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve to eliminate the husks, then combine with the sugar mixture.
  3. Heat a large heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, or a wok over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the nuts and toss until the nuts are hot to the touch and the nut oil has come to the surface, about 1 minute; reduce the heat if needed to prevent scorching.
  4. Sprinkle the nuts with half the seasoning mixture, then shake the pan vigorously until the sugar melts and turns a dark caramelized brown, about 1 minute. Add the remaining seasoning mixture and continue shaking the pan until the sugar melts again and coats the nuts. (Do not use a spatula or spoon for this process because the sugar will caramelize onto it instead of the nuts.)
  5. Immediately turn the nuts onto a foil-lined baking sheet. Use your fingers to separate the nuts when cool enough to handle, then let them cool completely. Store in a tightly sealed, impeccably clean glass jar.