Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cooking to Save the Planet: Christmastime Glazed Pecans

When I wrote about our curried black-eyed peas and collards supper earlier in the week, I mentioned my aunt Kat's recipe for glazed pecans.  I've blogged glancingly about this signature Christmas nibble of hers once or twice in the past, without ever remembering to give readers the recipe.  And so here it is.

With some preliminary notes about the significance of this recipe for me . . . . As I've often mentioned here, my mother's oldest sister, Kat, was very special to me as I grew up.  She had a knack no other adult in the family had for understanding precisely what kind of book I was hungering for, at a point when I was too young and inarticulate to explain that, no, it wasn't a cowboys and Indians book I wanted, but something that explained to me who the Indians were, how they lived, what their cultures were like.

She looked out for me, in other words.  She listened when other adults dismissed.  My favorite books when I was a little boy were an odd assortment of Victorian novels and children's books that she'd culled from the discard bins of the school at which she taught when the books were relegated to those bins because they'd become too tattered to stay on the shelves.  I still treasure the old, illustrated copy of Hilaire Belloc's Bad Child's Book of Beasts that came to me when I was around six years old from one of the bins at Kat's school.

As the unmarried sibling in my mother's family, Kat was also a role model for me.  She demonstrated for me that the single state was every bit as much of a possibility (which is to say, the non-heterosexually married state) for my adult life as was the state of unhappy marriage the rest of her siblings had dutifully chosen.  When my mother began to pull one guilt card after another out of her bag of tricks designed to keep me closeted in my young manhood--above all, the it-will-absolutely-kill-me-if-you-don't-marry-and-have-children trick--it was Kat who went to bat for me and backed my mother down with frosty statements about how it's possible to be unmarried and happy.

And so I treasure both my memories and mementoes of Kat, which include one of her engraved note cards ("Miss K. Simpson, 521 North Palm, Little Rock, Arkansas") on which she's written, in her generous round schoolmarm script, her recipe for glazed pecans.  I say "her" recipe, but I've found this very same recipe in old editions of the Arkansas Gazette, the daily statewide that she, her mother, her brother, every adult in my family, read faithfully each morning, cover to cover, along with the other daily statewide, the Arkansas Democrat.  Which they read primarily for obituaries and farm news, since they were suspicious of its decidedly non-Democratic political leanings.

So I'm fairly sure Kat had clipped her recipe from the Gazette and had transcribed it to one of her note cards--probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s, since the recipe seems to have been circulating in the paper's food column back then, and there's never a time in my childhood memories when the pecans weren't there for Christmastime.  Typically, however, she has not only copied, but has annotated the original.

The original tells you to do the following: in a heavy skillet, heat 1/4 cup of vegetable oil with 4 generous tablespoons of light corn syrup, stirring constantly.  When the two are well blended, add a quart of pecan halves and cook about 5 minutes, stirring constantly.  (The flame should be medium for this cooking step.)  Then transfer the pecans to a cookie sheet, spread them out, and bake them at 350F until they're brown, taking care not to burn them.  When you take them from the oven, turn them onto waxed paper, salt generously, and cool.

To the preceding instructions, Kat has added that she uses somewhat more corn syrup, and that she cooks the pecans somewhat longer than 5 minutes in the skillet before placing them in the oven.  "Skillet" has always meant, to my family, first and foremost a heavy black iron skillet.  Kat, in fact, simply transferred the black iron skillet to the oven for the baking process.  Whatever kind of skillet you use, it's important that you keep the pecans constantly stirred about, and that you watch to see that they're not beginning to brown too quickly, because they'll definitely scorch if you're not careful.

The same goes for their time in the oven.  They can become too brown in a heartbeat, and when that happens, the whole batch will be spoiled, since they'll continue to turn even browner and more burnt after you've removed them from the oven, because the nuts retain heat for some time.  It's best to take them out just before they're becoming dark brown, though Kat's annotations simultaneously instruct you to watch carefully that they not burn, and to make them "toasty," because their flavor is better when they're well-cooked.

As I say, we never had a Christmas without dishes of Kat's glazed pecans sitting among the cakes and pies on the sideboard, and in little dishes on coffee tables around the house, next to dishes of cheese straws, a Christmas speciality of my grandmother's.  She also made batches of the pecans as Christmas gifts, and I like to do the same.  

Our weather can remain humid throughout the Christmas season, and I should warn readers that, left in open dishes in humid weather, the pecans lose their crispness and become sticky.  It's better to keep them in very tightly sealed containers until you serve them, and not to allow them to remain out for long periods of time when the weather is sultry.

Since the recipe relies on corn syrup, I doubt this is anything like a traditional Southern dish, but I do suspect it's derived from a traditional dish that my father used to make for us when we were children, and which he called parched pecans.  Their making was simple: he simply melted loads of butter on a cookie sheet with raised edges, dumped pecan halves into the butter and tossed them around, salted them well, and baked them until they were brown and crisp, stirring and tossing them several times in the baking process.

Fresh pecans begin to come to our stores late in November and early in December.  One of my happiest childhood memories involving my father centers on Sunday-afternoon jaunts around Thanksgiving time, when he'd take us to what had once been an old plantation site near our house.  The plantation house itself was long gone, but my father explained to us how we could determine its former location by noting the several large old pecan trees that had once stood around the house, the location of the well down the hill from the house (the well was still there), and a cotton shed that had once stood back of the house and was also still there, its roof now sway-backed with age.

We spent happy fall Sunday afternoons around those venerable old pecan trees picking up the ripe pecans that had dropped from the trees.  They were an old native variety not found in stores, with hard shells and small nuts, but with a sweetness and incomparable flavor surpassing that of the store-bought varieties. 

And as I think about those memories and my father's parched pecans, I wonder if it might be possible to modify Kat's recipe and substitute butter for the vegetable oil and honey for the corn syrup.  Something tells me the flavor of the pecans would be even better, if I tried that . . . . The penchant for annotating and changing recipes didn't end in my family, I think, with Miss Samantha Katherine S. 

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