Making this caramel/fudgy candy has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. My mother made it every year at Christmas. The recipe has been printed in the Daily Oklahoman every year since 1931, having originally been printed in the “Aunt Susan” column. She states that it is the recipe from a kind friend known as “Aunt Bill.” This has always been confusing to me because I, too, had an “Aunt Bill” and as a child had assumed this was her recipe.
The original version of the recipe with its old fashioned language looks like this:
3 pints white sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 pint whole milk or cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 pound butter
2 pounds pecans or walnuts -- chopped
First, pour one pint of the sugar into a heavy iron skillet and place it over low fire. Begin stirring with a wooden spoon and keep the sugar moving so that it will not scorch at all. It will take almost half an hour to completely melt all of the sugar, and at no time should it smoke or cook so fast that it turns dark. It should be about the color of light brown sugar syrup.
As soon as you have the sugar started to heat in the skillet, pour the remaining two pints of sugar together with the pint of milk or cream into a deep heavy kettle and set it over a low fire to cook along slowly while you are melting the sugar in the skillet.
As soon as all the sugar is melted, begin pouring it into the kettle of simmering milk and sugar, keeping it on very slow heat and stirring constantly. Now the real secret of mixing these ingredients is to pour a very fine stream from the skillet into the pan. Aunt Bill always said to pour a stream no larger than a knitting needle, while stirring across the bottom of the kettle at the same time.
Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture forms a firm ball when dropped into cold water. After this test is made, turn out the fire and immediately add the soda, stirring hard as it foams up. Soon as the soda is mixed, add the butter, allowing it to melt as you stir. Now set the pan of candy off the stove, but not outdoors or in a cold place, for about 10 minutes, then add the vanilla and begin beating. Use a wooden spoon and beat until the mixture is thick and heavy, having a dull appearance instead of a glossy sheen. Add the broken pecan meats and mix. Turn into buttered tin boxes or square pans, where it can be cut into squares when cooled. This candy stays moist and delicious indefinitely. Decorate the pieces of candy with halves of pecans, if desired.
But I've made this candy at least 40 times, and this is how I make it myself:
Choose a heavy skillet that cooks evenly and a heavy, fairly large sauce pan. (I use my old aluminum pressure cooker base – no lid, of course). Pour 4 cups of sugar and 2 cups of whole milk, cream, or some combination thereof, into the large sauce pan and begin heating. Pour 2 cups of sugar into the heavy skillet and begin heating on medium so that the sugar begins to melt. I used a heavy non-stick skillet, and it works just fine.
You must baby the sugar in the skillet, moving it around with a wooden spoon. When it begins to melt, be sure that the temp isn’t too high and keep the sugar moving. Don’t worry about having clumps of unmelted sugar. But don’t transfer it to the large pot until all the clumps have dissolved.
You don’t have to watch the pot with the milk and sugar that much, as long as the temp is low to medium. I keep a wooden spoon in that pot, too, and stir it from time to time. Some of the modern recipes say “don’t stir the milk and sugar”, but that’s not my procedure. When all the sugar in the skillet is melted and has turned caramel colored (try to keep it from getting too dark), then begin to pour it into the big pot, turning the heat to low and stirring CONSTANTLY. A big problem is that the milk and sugar will boil and foam as the hot melted sugar is being poured in. Sometimes you just have to stop pouring for a minute and stir and stir the milk mixture, keeping the end of the wooden spoon on the bottom of the pan. I can do this by myself, but it’s really easier to have two people – one pouring and one stirring.
After all the melted sugar has been added to the milk mixture, continue cooking over a medium heat until the mixture reaches a firm ball stage. One recipe says 230º. Some of my references say 244º. I’ve never used a candy thermometer, so I’ve just cooked it until, when dropped in cold water, it forms a sort of flat ball in the bottom of the cup that keeps its shape when you touch it. If you don’t cook it long enough, it won’t “set”. If you cook it too long, it gets dry and crumbly. Deciding that it’s “ready” is an art, as far as I’m concerned.
The last few degrees seems to take a long time to reach. I’ll drop drops into cold water 20 times or so, hoping the temp has gone up enough, but the balls just completely flatten out. Then they finally sort of set up, though I usually continue cooking for a while. When you think the temp has been reached, turn off the heat, add the soda and butter, and let the candy cool for half an hour. Then add the vanilla and beat it.
Because it needs to be beaten until the color is dull rather than shiny, and because I’m usually alone to do this, I sometimes beat it with my hand mixer. I start after it has cooled about 20 minutes and beat until it gets too stiff for my little mixer. Then I continue to beat it a little by hand, add the nuts, and turn it out onto a buttered piece of wax or parchment paper. I shape it a little by hand, patting it down, etc. If it seems a little too sticky (undercooked), just let it set uncovered overnight. If it’s a little too dry, be sure to wrap it up in foil as soon as you can handle it.
I’ve undercooked this before, realized it after it started to cool, and reheated it. It was OK but not great. I don’t ever remember throwing the whole thing out. But at least once I questioned whether or not it was going to be good and not dumped all the precious pecans in it, waiting to see if it was going to “set”, then warming it back up several hours later so I could stir in the pecans (after I could see that it was OK).
Sometimes the texture is perfect. Sometimes it’s not. But I’ve never had any left on the platter!