I don’t care what candy-makers say. Candy making is not easy. The instructions in the recipe were so clear, so specific, I thought there’d be no way to screw up my precious pralines, that delicious Southern confection I’ve been dreaming of making for weeks now, since the day I received ten pounds of pecans from my friend’s orchard in Georgia. Like the baker that I am, I read through the recipe at least twice before starting, took note of the timing, got out all my ingredients, buttered my pot, shined my new candy thermometer. Nothing could go wrong.
I started early enough that I would be done by the time the kids’ bus arrived in the afternoon. Poured the cream and two kinds of sugar in the pot, turned the heat up, and stirred til it boiled. Just like the instructions said. Then I turned the heat down, clipped on my shiny new candy thermometer, and stirred now and then while the sugar cream bubbled merrily. It was all going so well. So according to plan.
After the designated 20 minutes, when the mixture should have reached 234°, the “soft ball” stage, it was still at about 220°. Only 14 degrees to go, no big deal. So I kept stirring. Another twenty minutes, and it was only up five degrees.
I watched. I stirred. And the temperature didn’t budge. So I cranked up the heat, just a hair, and stirred some more. Another five minutes crawled by. Still at 225°. At this point I was getting worried because my timing was going to be off for meeting the kids’ bus. I cranked it up again, fretting that I might burn the stuff, which would really suck after already investing 45 minutes, a cup of half and half, and three cups of sugar. Because once sugar burns, there is no saving it.
I watched the temperature inch to 226° and hang out. Cranked it up more. Didn’t care if it burned.
Finally, after more than an hour (which should have been 20 minutes), the bubbling caramel goodness reached 234°. I pulled it off the heat and dropped the 3 tbs of butter in, without stirring, just like the recipe said. All that was left was to let it cool for about half an hour til the temperature came down to 150°, when I would add the pecans, stir forcefully for 3 minutes, and then drop spoons full on waxed paper, very quickly, before they hardened into the beautiful, glossy, brown sugar praline candy that my mouth was watering for.
I looked at the clock, and wouldn’t you know it, the damned candy was supposed to be ready at the exact same time I needed to go meet the bus. I watched the temperature come down as the clock ticked, and just when it was time for me to walk out the door, it was at 152 degrees. I thought, “Well, it will be close enough,” and walked out to meet the kids.
When we returned, I went straight to my candy, stuck my spoon in to stir, and was met with a solid mass of grainy, buttery sugar in the shape of a stainless steel pot. I dumped the pecans in anyway, thinking maybe it would work if I stirred real hard. But all that got me was a bunch of swearing in front of the kids and a really sore forearm. I tried spooning the granulated sugarmass onto waxed paper, and after about 20 crumbling chunks (and more swearing), I knew it just wasn’t going to work.
I threw the pot and my spoon in the sink, where they clanged loudly, swore some more, ate a spoonful of crusty sugar/pecan mess, then another, and stomped over to the computer to see if I could salvage these two hours of work and two cups of pecans. If you eat pecans (or pay for them), you will understand the tragedy of this loss.
I breathed in and out, and read that maybe, I could warm the stuff back up. Maybe add a little cream. Stir, and wish, and stir some more. And maybe, just maybe, I could salvage these things.
So I dumped all the sad, falling-apart sugar clumps back into the pot, dumped an unmeasured amount of half and half (maybe a tablespoon?), turned the heat to medium, and started churning the thick, unstirrable bulk. And what do you know? It started to to melt. To become malleable. The chunks I had spooned out became incorporated into the mixture again. I stirred harder, my forearm screaming, my hand cramping around the wooden spoon, my heart pounding from the exertion, like I was out for a run instead of stirring candy. The spoon began to move. Fluidly. It was working!
What happened next was worth all the heartache of screwing up. As the mixture softened, and the stirring became easier, I watched the warmer portions of the candy – the pool on the bottom of the pan – become glossy. Glossy like it was supposed to become when I first stirred the pecans in, had I caught it at the right temperature. I watched the candy go backwards through its stages, from hard, to grainy and malleable, to glossy. It was like magic. I couldn’t believe that not only were my pralines revived, but thanks to my screw-up, I was able to take them all the way to the end and back again, seeing every stage, knowing where the candy is headed at each consistency, each temperature, each level of graininess.
As a perfectionist, I don’t do well with mistakes. Mistakes make me angry. “We learn from our mistakes” is all fine and good intellectually – I get it, in my head. I’m sure I’ve said that phrase a thousand times to our daughter (who also gets mad when she screws up). But, let’s be honest. We just say that to make ourselves feel better about making them, right? To talk about the silver lining when we don’t actually see it.
But with these pralines, I experienced the value of blundering, not at the intellectual, reasoning level, but at the level of something clicking inside of me. I saw the outcome of my errors in real life, not just as a “this might happen” in my head. I saw the actual, physical result of screwing up, and as I watched the pralines in reverse, witnessing the stages of candy-making, I learned, viscerally, what it means to learn from a mistake. But the best part of this, especially for the perfectionists among us who don’t do well with erring, is that with simple ingredients, rather than someone’s emotions or self-image, I got the chance to make mistakes, see their consequences, and then unmake them, as if they never happened. I think that’s where the true magic was.
That and the fact that I still got my pralines in the end.
Andrea’s Magic Pralines*
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup half and half or light cream
3 Tbs butter
2 cups pecan halves
1. Butter sides of a heavy 2-quart saucepan. In saucepan combine sugars and half-and-half. Cook and stir over medium-high heat till mixture boils. Clip a candy thermometer to pan. Reduce heat to medium-low; continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring occasionally, till thermometer registers 234°, soft-ball stage (16 to 18 minutes).
2. Remove pan from heat. Add butter; do not stir. Cool, without stirring, to 150° (about 30 minutes).
3. Remove thermometer from saucepan. Stir in pecans. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon till mixture just begins to thicken, but is still glossy (about 3 minutes). Working quickly, drop candy by spoonfuls onto waxed paper. When firm, store in a tightly covered container. Makes about 36 pieces.
*actually, they are from the Better Homes and Gardens NEW COOK BOOK