Thursday, June 19, 2014

John Henry

My great uncle was one of the most kind and gentle persons I’ve ever known, and his wife was every bit his equal.  Their life was hard, difficult at best, but the only time I ever heard a complaint was when the bag of pecans was getting low.

I’ve written before about Aunt Gertrude’s pies, but I’ve said little about Uncle John.  Sometimes it’s rather difficult to bring back his memory without remembering the loss I felt when he died.  I was almost twelve, and my family had just returned from a week in Missouri, when we were notified that Uncle John had fallen through the unfinished roof on one of his barns.  It took me a long time to adjust.  Even though it was over 50 years ago, the memories are still alive.

I enjoyed being at his farm near Kennedale where the world’s best watermelons grew.  I would go there during the summers with my grandfather to help out in the fields while the giant green orbs grew sweeter in the hot sun.  I don’t believe I was much of a helper, but I was made to feel useful, and always at the end of the day was the big dinner Aunt Gertrude would prepare.  After the pie was finished, we would retire to Uncle John’s sitting room where we would, uh, sit. 

There was no television, but we would watch the radio for a while.  Inevitably Uncle John would open his big bag of pecans, and we would all have a few.  That bag was never empty, although sometimes it would get a bit low; however, the following night it would be full again.  It took me a couple of years before I discovered the secret of the bottomless pecan bag, and it was so simple.  Uncle John kept several big barrels full of them in one of his barns.  Those pecans were used for Aunt Gertrude’s pecan pies, as well as many of the other special treats she made, but they were also used for just general munching.

The Texas state tree is the pecan tree, and they are everywhere.  The native pecan is a rather small nut with a hard shell and a rich oily flavor that no other pecan can equal.  There are many good pecans grown across America, and most of them are much better for decorating than is the Texas native pecan, but the flavor…  Uncle John’s barrels of pecans were gathered from the big native trees growing in the bottom lands along the banks of the Trinity River, but I also remember seeing a few 50 pound bags of paper shell pecans propped up against the sides of those barrels, so apparently any pecan was better than no pecan.  I agree completely.

A few years ago I realized that I have very few recipes requiring any nut other than pecans.  As I inherited or developed these cooking instructions, the pecan was always the preferred nut.  I never use peanuts (I’m allergic to them), hazel nuts sometimes appear, as do walnuts.  Somehow Chiles en Nogada would just be wrong with pecans instead of walnuts, but the pecan is the nut of choice for most of my cooking. 

I have often wondered if I made my choice of using the pecan based on taste preference, or through the influence of Uncle John.  Either way, I do like pecans, and one of my three- or four-hundred favorite ways to consume them in the form of a praline.  This is one of the simplest of candies to make, but be careful, it is extremely hot when forming the patty.

Texas Pecan Pralines
Makes a whole bunch, but never enough.

    1/2 cup granulated sugar                                       
    1/2 cup light corn syrup                                       
    1/2 cup butter                                                 
    1/2 cup heavy cream                                            
    1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract                              
    1 pinch ground cinnamon                                        
    1 1/2 cups chopped pecans                                      

Cook the sugar and syrup over a medium high heat to 250F. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until melted. Slowly add the cream until thoroughly blended (return to heat if needed).

Return to heat and bring the mixture to 242F. The caramel should be a deep golden color. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, cinnamon, and pecans. Beat for 5-10 minutes until almost cool. Mixture should mound on the spoon but still be able to drop and be stirred easily. Drop (using 2 tablespoons) onto parchment. Allow pralines to cool completely before serving.

I don’t know how long the pralines keep.  They never lasted long enough to find out.

This praline is the chewy type.  My favorite, but I’ll never turn down the crunchy type either.

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