Finally. A day in late September and the humidity is down for the first time in … well, it’s been a long, sweltering summer. In spite of the humidity, no rain for weeks on end. Dead heat. Beads of moisture on the sides of glasses; roads dusty; blacktop blinding; a ceiling fan circulating slowly overhead; storms strengthening in the Gulf.
But all that’s behind us now. The ten-year anniversary of Katrina is behind us. And today is the first day when the weather—though still hot—is actually somewhat crisp. Breezy, even. In other words, the humidity is down. And the humidity must be down in order to make pecan pralines.
Key moments to note: When directions say “stir constantly,” “stir constantly” means stir constantly. Another key moment is the magical phase when the sugar suddenly turns into candy. You need a candy thermometer, but you can find one at most grocery stores. When the thermometer shows the soft ball stage (about 239 degrees)—and it can take forever to get there (20-30 minutes, depending)—you have to move fast. The entire rest of the recipe takes place in the next three to four minutes: stirring/cooling and dropping onto parchment paper.
Marcelle Bienvenue published the main foundation of this recipe in the Times Picayune, in early December 2008. (Many people give pralines as gifts.) I had never made pralines before seeing her column; I imagined they were so difficult, only a professional would dare attempt them, but I’m still using that tattered piece of newspaper today.
The ingredients are a cinch. Anyone can throw some sugar, salt, milk and butter together. Add the gumption to fearlessly face the candy thermometer and soft ball stage and … viola! Hand them around to the neighbors!
1 pound light brown sugar (or raw sugar)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups pecan halves (roughly chopped)
STEP BY STEP:
- Cover a flat surface with parchment paper.
- Chop pecans and put them on a cookie sheet at 350° until they begin to smell good. Do not burn. Pecans go rapidly from smelling good to smelling burned.
- Mix sugar, salt, milk and butter in a heavy pot or saucepan.
- Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves.
- Add the pecans and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, or until a candy thermometer held in the mixture reaches between 234 and 240 degrees.
- Remove from the heat.
- Stir constantly for a few minutes while the mixture cools. Stir until the mixture begins to thicken and coat the pecans.
- Drop mixture by spoonfuls onto the parchment paper.
- When the candy has cooled and set—about a half hour—gently lift from the surface with a thin knife.
- Store in an airtight container.