Makes 21/2 dozen
Legend has it that Clement Lassagne, personal chef to Monsieur Marshal du Plessis-Praslin of France, in 1636 created the praline, which is a firm fixture in New Orleans, Charleston and other coastal areas. It is ironic because the humidity in these areas increases the difficulty of sugar work. Although there are dire warnings about doing sugar work in humid areas, it is not impossible, even on rainy days. Don't be daunted by this recipe: If the pralines don't harden, freeze them and they will harden and be delightful, too. A sugar thermometer is advisable.
11/2 cups granulated sugar
11/2 cups light or dark brown sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 cups pecan halves, toasted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dissolve sugars with the milk in a large, heavy pan over low heat, taking care not to boil before the sugars are dissolved. Brush down the sides with clean water from time to time. If the sugar is not dissolved before it boils, the pralines will be grainy, but they will still be delicious.
When dissolved, turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat for 11 minutes, or until a candy thermometer registers 228 degrees (thread stage). Stir in butter. Cook, stirring constantly, until candy thermometer reaches 238 degrees (soft-ball stage).
Remove from heat and stir in pecans and vanilla. Beat with a wooden spoon 1 to 2 minutes, or until mixture begins to thicken and turn opaque. Quickly drop by heaping tablespoons onto buttered waxed paper or parchment paper; it will spread a bit and then become firm. Keep warm or rewarm if it hardens too quickly. If still runny and it doesn't harden, scoop up and put the candy into a clean pan, bring up to 238 degrees again, and repeat as above.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature or freeze.
Variation: That said, if there is a problem the first time, my friend (and Features editor) Teresa Taylor says to create a new dessert by folding them into softened vanilla ice cream. Or, if they're too soft, scrape up the mixture, chill it, and roll into 1-inch balls. Dip the balls into melted chocolate to make truffles.
Variation: Martha Foose ran a fabulous bakery in Oxford, Miss., when my husband and I lived there. I would try to get there regularly to eat her croissants and tempting goodies. We both moved away but have stayed in touch, primarily because we have very similar philosophies of life and food. In her marvelous book, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea,” she adds crumbled crisp bacon slices along with the pecans, approximately four to each cup of sugar.
Variation: White Pecan Pralines. Unlike the traditional Charleston Pralines, these pralines of Chuck Lee's are made with only white granulated sugar, which gives them a beautiful pale color and a lighter flavor than those made with brown sugar. These are seen frequently at weddings and ladies' luncheons.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.