“The pecan candy man, usually a Mexican, dressed in white duck jacket and trousers, is a familiar sight on the street corners of every Texas city.“
—E. G. Littlejohn, “The Pecan: Its Culture and Commercial Value,” The Journal of Geography, Volume 1, March 1902
“Candy or sherbet?” Rare is the Mexican restaurant where you’ll hear that anymore. Even harder to find is the candy in question, that is, one that’s made from scratch and hasn’t been left to drift into senectitude in a wicker basket near the cash register. Yet the praline looms large in Texans’ taste memories, that sugary, nutty, creamy-crispy confection (we don’t cotton to the chewy kind) without which no No. 1 dinner is complete.
How did the praline come to be the ultimate Tex-Mex dessert? Chalk it up to a plenitude of wild pecans and the industriousness of Mexican immigrants; for a candy vendor, the “only investment required was a pot, a source of heat, and some sugar,” says culinary historian M. M. Pack. The nueces dulces eventually migrated from street-corner pushcarts to Mexican restaurants, where they were known simply as pecan candies. The humble patties would only later acquire the name “pralines,” bestowed by admirers of their legendary New Orleans brethren.
As for cooking up a batch, well, pralines are easy to make and easy to mess up. Humidity, timing, temperature—all can conspire against you. When they work, they’re sublime; when they don’t, you have a seriously good topping for some Blue Bell vanilla. Here’s a recipe that worked for me, courtesy of blogger and cookbook author Lisa Fain, a.k.a. the Homesick Texan.
Makes about 20 pralines
2 cups white sugar
2 cups light-brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 cups pecans
1 generous tablespoon unsalted butter
2/3 cup whole milk
Mix all ingredients very well in a large saucepan. Turn stove on medium-high heat and bring mixture to a boil; continue to cook, stirring frequently, until a candy thermometer registers 234 degrees (candy will be at soft-ball stage). Remove from heat and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, or until mixture is not so glossy. Quickly spoon pralines onto trays lined with parchment paper. Let cool for about 20 minutes.