I got the tree. We are creatures of habit, a houseful of nontraditional traditionalists. Our tree tradition is for all of us to put on Batman T-shirts and drive the family truckster to Lowe’s, where they cut a fresh surface on the trunk and net the tree free of charge. This year we took two borrowed dogs, Brinley and Olive.
The other part of this tradition that is older than my son is to pay for the tree and then ask the cashier, “Can I get a bag for this?” Once I’m out of the store I take more twine than I would need for securing the blue spruce or Frasier fir to the luggage rack and use it throughout the year for various emergencies.
We also must wait for a cold snap. What good is getting a tree if you can’t have hot chocolate (I swear to God, if you call it hot cocoa I may lose it) afterward? So it’s been a roller coaster of temps, with air conditioning in the afternoons and central heat at night. Kind of a dodgy season, but at least we’re getting some rain.
At any rate, the thermometer should fall tonight and lighten my humbugs so I can get on with the business of decorating and starting my holiday treat projects. I’m not much of a baker, nor am I an artist, so my presentation is often lacking. But when I get into cooking something I love, I will work hard until I get it right.
For Thanksgiving this year my mother, Khaki, went all out. We had our usual spread, all of my favorites, but she finished the meal with a fantastic batch of pralines. It’s not something she does with any regularity. It seems as though I remember her making them when I was a kid, but they don’t hold a grasp on my recent memory.
Whatever the case, she nailed it. She gets more amazing every year with her cooking, but she excels at sweets. Maybe it’s because she has such a sweet tooth herself.
A praline is one of the many great things about living in the South. Here we are, in the most humid part of the country, and our culture mastered the confection that requires low humidity. Gee, ain’t it funny how that worked out. But there is another treat that requires one to pay close attention to the weather forecast, and that is divinity.
I do recall divinity being a key part of Khaki’s buffet table of candies and desserts. I can close my eyes and see it. Stark white and gorgeous, next to haystacks, Texas Trash, white trash, magic cookie bars and maybe a pie or two, the divinity looked almost unreal.
I remember some guests not knowing what divinity was, thinking maybe it was just decoration. That porcelain look, the frailty of it, added a needed dose of elegance next to a bowl of what amounted to nothing more than cereal cooked in butter and Worcestershire. It was a balance between refinement and blue-collar practicality. Let me tell you, I more than anyone need both of those things in my life.
So this year, since I am so rough around the edges, I’d like to focus on making the best divinity I can. With pecans, without pecans, I’ll be making batches of it, hoping to add an injection of refinement into my day-to-day routine. Here is a base recipe that I have come up with through researching several.
2 cups sugar
½ cup water
½ cup light corn syrup
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup chopped pecans
Before you fire up the stove, it is a good idea to prepare your workspace. You’ll need cooking racks lined with parchment paper. You’ll need a hand mixer or a decent stand mixer and a good-size bowl set up, preferably not near the stove. A candy thermometer may be the most important part of this.
Over medium heat in a heavy saucepan, heat the sugar, water and corn syrup, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Once it reaches a temperature of 250 F., you are at hard-ball stage. At this point, if you dropped a bit into cool water the sugar will form a sticky ball that will retain its shape when pressed. If it flattens when you remove it from the water, you are at the soft-ball stage and not hot enough. If it forms threads, then you are too hot at the soft-crack stage.
In the meantime, beat the egg whites in a large bowl on high speed until stiff peaks form. You have to keep an eye on that candy thermometer while you do this. We don’t want to reach 260 F. for our syrup.
Once you have your peaks and your syrup is at 250 F., reduce your speed to medium and slowly pour the hot syrup mixture in a small but steady stream into the egg whites. Be careful to not cook the eggs, and keep that mixer going.
Add the vanilla and keep beating until the mixture holds its shape. It may take up to 10 minutes of mixer time, but once it begins to hold its shape you may add the pecans.
After the pecans are incorporated, rapidly drop by the spoonful (for best results use a greased spoon) onto parchment paper and cool for at least 12 hours.
As I mentioned, this works best when the humidity is low, so make sure the weather works in your favor. I have read that some people make divinity in humid times by adding a little less water to the syrup. The whole process isn’t that complicated but it does require your undivided attention.
If you have any divinity tips send them my way. I’d love to hear about them. For now, let’s haul out the holly and decorate this tree. Christmas is here.