One of Baltimore's local, home-grown institutions is the Book Thing, an organization that gives away books. Anyone who has unwanted books can donate them, anyone who wants a book can have one. All the books are free and you're encouraged to take as many books as you'd like; the only stipulation is that the books cannot be sold and the inside cover of every book is stamped with "Not for resale. This is a free book."
Up until a couple of months ago my relationship with the Book Thing was one-sided. I donated only. But then fellow Baltimore City blogger Fairfax started posting about the wonderful design books she'd been finding there which prompted me to go see what the cookbook situation at the Book Thing was. This was a mistake.
I now have a new vice and I am making forays almost weekly. I've found a number of interesting cookbooks including both a 1930 and a 1959 edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook in excellent condition, a 1940s edition of Clementine in the Kitchen, and volumes of Time Life's Good Cook series which was edited by Richard Olney. I've also discovered the world of Junior League Cookbooks
Junior League cookbooks, which have been published as fundraisers by Junior Leagues across the country since the 1940s, are a portrait of an era. They're great examples of culinary history -- a snapshot of the way a region eats during a period of time. The cookbooks I've acquired have all been from the 1960s and 1970s. Recipes are submitted by members (for the most part) and the contributors are almost without exception identified by their husband's name rather than their own. The recipes are a mixture of those based on the convenience foods of the day, cream-of-whatever soup casseroles and Cool-whip-jello-cake-mix desserts, or -- what interests me -- entirely home-made.
This recipe is from Cooking Through Rose Colored Glasses published by the Junior League of Tyler, Texas in 1975. I'd never heard of buttermilk pralines before -- in fact my entire experience with pralines up to this point amounted to one praline I'd purchased at the New Orleans airport 5 or 6 years ago -- but they sounded suitably exotic yet made with ingredients easily procured, and a fairly simple technique: 1 cup of buttermilk, three cups of sugar, 1 tsp of baking soda, cooked til it reaches the softball stage, add 3 tbsp of butter, 1 tsp of vanilla, and 1 cup of pecans. Beat til mixture loses its sheen and scoop out candies onto waxed paper. Easy, right? Ha!
I've now made five batches trying to get it all worked out for myself. On my first attempt one of the problems with Junior League cookbooks became immediately apparent --and in fact this is often a problem with older cookbooks which assume a level of expertise -- the recipes are brief, and salient points may be assumed to be understood and therefore not spelled out. Or perhaps the recipe's contributor, Mrs. John F. Warren, simply forgot to mention that the sugar mixture bubbles up vigorously and you need a large pot. The medium sized pot I'd started with seemed plenty large enough but in no time at all the sugar mixture had bubbled up and started to bubble over necessitating a change of pots mid-operation.
That batch was cement-like in appearance but delicious, my second batch was almost perfect, my third a total disaster that included sugar that scorched so badly it peeled the finish right off the interior of a Le Creuset french oven. (And who knew that could happen? My faith in Le Creuset's product is shaken.) Batches four and five while delicious were still not quite what I'm looking for which is something thinner and neater, more like the praline I purchased all those years ago at the New Orleans airport. I'm perfectly happy with how they taste, I'd just like them to look prettier.
But I'm done. I have to move on. So here is Mrs. John F. Warren's recipe modified somewhat based on consultation with Shirley Corriher's recipe in Cookwise and viewing a number of recipes on the internet which all seemed to be a variation of this one.
Buttermilk Pecan Pralines
1 cup of buttermilk
2 cups of sugar
1 tsp of baking soda
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 to 2 cups pecans (I use less than a 1 1/2 cups but some recipes use more)
1. In a large pot (I use a 6-quart pot) over medium heat, combine the buttermilk, sugar, and baking soda. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Stirring occasionally, continue heating the mixture until it reaches 234 degrees on a candy thermometer. If you’re attempting this without a candy thermometer (and if you are, I admire your bravery) cook to the soft ball stage. This will take about 1/2 hour.
2. Meanwhile toast the pecans at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes. They’re ready when they become fragrant. Toss them with about 1 tablespoon of the butter, melted, and a pinch of salt.
3. When the sugar-buttermilk mixture reaches 234 degrees, take it off the flame and add the remaining butter, the vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Stir quickly and then add the pecans and stir again. As soon as you feel the mixture thicken in the slightest (you’ll also see it get less glossy) begin to spoon out the mixture onto parchment covered cookie pans. Work fast here because it’s my experience that this stuff wants to set up very, very quickly. If it does harden before you can get everything spooned out, return it to a low flame, add about a teaspoonful of water, and stir as it becomes liquid again, then continue to spoon out the pralines.
Popular wisdom seems to be that these don't set on humid days. I'm suspicious of this because these candies are so identified with New Orleans and as far as I can tell New Orleans has nothing but humid days. However I pass it along for what it's worth.
This leaves what looks like an impossible to clean mess in the pot you've used. To clean the pot, fill it with water and bring it to a simmer. The crusted sugar will magically disappear.