Growing up, there were pecans all around us — in our back yards, in my grandparents’ back yard, in the school yards, on the sidewalks on the way home from school. My grandfather kept a shotgun in the back room to shoo the squirrels off of his pecan tree. Sometimes my grandmother made squirrel stew.
When I was in high school, my grandfather inherited some land in Bosco, La., that included part of a pecan orchard. Every fall, the grandparents would travel to Bosco to gather up the pecans and bring home bushel after bushel. Sometimes we would go down and help.
If you were lucky, you got to use the pecan picker-upper, which looked like a large Slinky on a stick. It worked great. If you weren’t lucky, you had to use the built-in picker-uppers at the end of your arms. No matter how the nuts got picked up, though, everyone got a big bag of pecans to take home.
Then came the chore of cracking those pecans.
If you were lucky, you got to use the Reed’s Rocket. If you weren’t lucky, you had to use the old-fashioned spring-type nutcrackers that weren’t quite so efficient at cracking the whole nut. (Apparently, though, you can also use them with seafood. Unitool they are not.)
Eventually, I learned to crack pecans two in one hand, using one against the other to break them open and reveal that sweet nutmeat inside. It took me longer than most kids to learn that skill, because my hands are smaller than average. You wouldn’t want to do that for a whole bag of nuts, though.
During this time, Dad worked in a local hardware store. Once a year, he would take some of our pecans to an old woman who shopped there. In return, she would bring him a huge batch of the most wonderful pralines I’ve ever tasted.
If you’ve never had pralines, you are missing a classic taste of Louisiana — brown sugar, milk, and butter cooked to 234 degrees, with toasted pecans added in at the end. The hot mixture is then dropped, a spoonful at a time, onto waxed paper.
If you can’t get any homemade pralines, second best are the pralines in New Orleans, the birthplace of the American praline and the land of Mardi Gras. If you ever get down to the Crescent City, go to the French Market and, if you have room in your belly after gorging on beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde, pick up a few pralines at one of the several praline makers, such as Aunt Sally’s.
If you think about it, brown sugar, butter, and milk are exactly the same ingredients you use in fudge, and pralines have a similar texture to fudge. I decided to attempt a praline fudge, both to honor my Louisiana French heritage and to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
3 cups dark brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup milk
1 package white chocolate chips (12 oz. or so)
1 jar (7 oz.) marshmallow creme
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups toasted pecans
Toast the pecans.
- Spread 2 cups of pecans one layer deep on a cookie sheet.
- Pick out any bitters or bad pecans.
- Eat one or two or three pecans to make sure they are fresh.
- Toast the rest in 250 degree oven for 20 minutes, stirring every five minutes. (Toast extra pecans, because everyone will want to try one to make sure they’re done.)
Make the fudge
- Heat brown sugar, butter, syrup, and milk over medium heat to a full, rolling boil in 3 qt. heavy sauce pan, stirring constantly. (Dark brown sugar gives you a great molasses flavor. Light brown sugar tastes like someone waved a sugar cane stalk over granulated sugar and then called it brown sugar. Bleah.)
- Boil on medium heat until the candy thermometer reaches 234 degrees F, stirring constantly.
- Take the pan off the heat and add the chips to the mix.
- Stir in the marshmallow creme, salt, and vanilla.
- Stir in the pecans.
- Stir until the mixture thickens and starts to look dull, and pour it into the foil-lined or buttered cake pan.
- Let the fudge cool for a couple of hours, and then cut it into bite-sized squares.
- Store the fudge in air-tight containers.