26 April 2007
Why I Live At The P.O.
Two people meet, they fall in love, they share a wonderful summer together, and then they are forced to part. It's a typical love story, one echoed over and over in literature and clichéed in summer romances. My own love story is much the same, with one slight variation: we met, we fell in love, were forced to return to our separate cities, and then the packages began.
My mother instilled in me a love of the postal system: she is one of the few people I know who still sends handwritten letters; traveling in southern France one summer, we stopped at the local post office of each tiny town, sometimes to send a postcard or buy stamps, often with no particular purpose in mind. Now, my mother and I exchange postcards constantly, often with nothing written on the back other than the address, a visual way of saying hello.
My boyfriend and I have lived a short plane hop apart and with as little as a few tangled inches of sheets and as much as 5,663 miles between us. When you love someone that much, you count the miles, the minutes, the inches. We have amassed cell phone minutes and Skype bills and frequent flier miles, and peppered the post with letters and packages.
As a girl that loves to bake, I found my perfect excuse, wrapping up boxes of my mom's stellar chocolate chip cookie recipe, baking macaroons late at night. I nibble at edges, sneak a cookie or two, and then quickly wrap them for mailing lest I pilfer the whole batch. Concerned I might be damaging his glycemic level, I have even made crackers and baked breads, if I could have made and mailed a curry, I would have. I won't pretend every confection was perfect, he has been victim to my baking experiments, low-fat baked goods that probably didn't travel well, but each has been stirred with love.
There were lessons along the way, explaining to my London-born companion what a praline was, about eating them every summer in the market in Charleston, about the low-country cuisine of my youth. Those sugary pecan confections were a hit, even the little crumbly bits at the bottom of the tin, and the parts I scraped out of the pan and crunched from the spoon. There have been lessons of other kinds as well, that distance can be surmounted by dedication, but also that distance can be difficult, and that a box of cookies can't solve everything.
These wonderful confections may take a little practice to get right, but even the not-so-perfect ones will still taste great. Some people prefer to add all the pecans at the end but I like to add half of them at the beginning, so they get a nice toasty flavor without over-crowding the pan.
3 cups brown sugar
2 cups pecan halves
1 cup buttermilk or whole milk
4 tbl butter
1 tsp salt
1 tbl vanilla
special equipment: candy thermometer
1. Line 2 baking sheets or a work surface with parchment or wax paper. Get two large metal spoons and rub them with butter or oil to grease.
2. Place the sugar, buttermilk, butter, salt, and half of the pecans in a medium-sized heavy duty sauce pan. Place over medium heat and stir so that the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook over medium-high heat until the mixture just reaches 236 F, about 15 minutes.
3. Remove the pan from the heat, add the vanilla and remaining pecans, and stir the mixture rapidly until it just begins to lose its shine, only about one minute. Working very quickly, use the two greased spoons to dollop out pralines onto the parchment. Don't worry if it seems runny at first, the mixture will begin to set very quickly. It's better to start sooner and have a runny one at first then risk having them harden in the pan.
4. Let sit until firm, store in an air-tight container at room temperature.
Note: Inevitably, your last few pralines might be less then pretty, but they'll still taste good. There will probably be some stray sugary pecan bits stuck to the pan, these are excellent crumbled over vanilla ice cream. In the unfortunate event your mixture hardens very quickly, you can pass off the nuts simply as sugared pecans.