My Mother, Ruth, was an extraordinary cook, and Christmastime showcased her gifts more than any other time of year. In particular, she was a superb candy maker, and her caramel pecan nut roll (also known as a pecan log) and hand-dipped chocolates were works of art–as delicious to the eyes as they were for the taste buds.
When I went away to college, she sent me a small box at Christmastime, but it just wasn’t enough to satisfy that longing for home that this particular Christmas memory evoked. I decided that the best solution to an “adequate” supply of caramel pecan nut roll was to learn to make my own.
Caramel Pecan Nut Roll and Caramel Cashew Roll
We enjoy two types of nut roll in my family. The first is a center of penuche surrounded by a layer of homemade caramel and pecans. The second version is made with a creme fondant in the center. This variety still has a mouthwatering layer of caramel, but I embed roasted cashews in the outside of this caramel nut roll. They are family favorites, and I have children that start rummaging in the kitchen looking for nut roll as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is over and the Christmas season is officially launched.
The fondness for Christmas candy, and especially for caramel, is a generational affliction. I mailed a box of chocolate-dipped caramels to a grandson who was living in India one Christmas. He rationed himself to just one per day and hid the box in the top of a closet so that his roommates couldn’t find them. One afternoon, he arrived home to find a trail of very large ants leading to his closet. Rescuing the prized box of caramels, he stashed them in the freezer to kill the ants–and still ate the remaining caramels. That taste of Christmas comfort when you are a long way from home is a pretty powerful tie. This year, I received a request from another granddaughter living in Scotland: “I don’t need anything except a box of Grandma’s chocolates. You can leave the cherry chocolates out to make more room for the caramels.”
I have done dozens of candy-making demonstrations over the years, but this is one of my most often-requested culinary classes. Here’s a video that explains some of my methods and shows the process:
Homemade Caramel Pecan Nut Rolls
Make the fondant or penuche filling and the caramel first. If you would like, both the penuche and the caramel will keep for several days, so I refrigerate the filling and set the caramel aside (caramel should rest at room temperature) until I’m ready to use them. I often make caramel pecan nut roll as a gift for my neighbors.
Here are the candy recipes I use:
- 1 cup white sugar
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 Tablespoon white corn syrup (Karo or other)
- ⅓ cup milk
- 3 Tablespoons whipping cream
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- ⅛ teaspoon soda
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- Place Karo, milk, and whipping cream in a large, heavy pan (I use an old heavy-aluminum pressure cooker pan).
- Add remaining ingredients except for soda and vanilla.
- Bring to a boil and then stir and cook to softball stage - 238 degrees (2 or 3 drops of syrup can be molded into a soft ball when dropped in cold water).
- Add soda (mixture will foam; stir rapidly to make sure it doesn't boil over).
- Set aside and cool until lukewarm. Try not to bump or disturb the pan after the liquid quits boiling as that can cause it to sugar. I usually place the pan in a sink of cold water so I don't have to wait so long for it to cool.
- Using a wooden spoon or paddle, stir vanilla into cooled mixture and continue stirring until it "breaks." (If you lift the paddle above the pan and let the syrup drip back into the pan, at first it drops in a single stream back into the liquid in the pan. When it is ready, the stream breaks into pieces rather than flowing into the pan in one stream). Candy sets up almost immediately anyway.
- Transfer the candy to a buttered dish and cut into squares or, using buttered hands, form into rolls to use for nut rolls.
- Tip: If your candy sets up too quickly or is too hard or crumbly (this usually means you cooked it a little too long), just knead it with lightly buttered hands until it is smooth, pressing out any lumps with your thumb and fingers.
- ¾ cup evaporated milk (1/2 can)
- 2 cups cream, divided
- 2 cups sugar
- 1-1/2 cup white corn syrup
- ⅛ tsp salt
- 4 Tbsp butter
- 1 T vanilla
- Place evaporated milk and ONE cup of the cream in a large, heavy pan.
- Add sugar, corn syrup, and salt.
- Stirring with a wooden spoon or paddle, bring mixture to a boil.
- Slowly add the remaining cup of cream so mixture continues to boil.
- Cook to softball or 238 degrees, stirring constantly.
- Add butter and vanilla and cook to 248 degrees (firm ball - 2 or 3 drops added to cold water can be formed into a firm ball)
- Pour hot caramel onto a buttered cookie sheet if making caramel nut rolls. (For chocolate-dipped caramels, pour into a buttered bread pan or until caramel layer is about 1-inch thick). DO NOT Scrape the pan. just let the syrup drip from the pan. Scraping the caramel out of the cooking pot and onto the cookie sheet will cause the caramel to "sugar" and will ruin the batch.
Now that both the penuche and caramel have been prepared, proceed to assemble your caramel pecan nut roll as follows:
- Lay a piece of waxed paper on the counter-top and place a 3-4 inch wide strip of nuts (pecans, cashews, peanuts, or other) down the center.
- Cut a 4-inch wide strip of the caramel and lay it over the nuts, pressing lightly.
- Place a roll of penuche or other fondant down the middle of the caramel.
- Roll up by lifting one side of the waxed paper and folding the nuts and caramel over the top of the fondant. This is the simplest way to guide the nuts and caramel around the filling. You can press additional nuts into the outside of the finished caramel roll if there are patches where the nuts didn’t adhere well to the caramel.
- Wrap securely in one or more layers of waxed paper and then place in a ziploc bag to store. Refrigerate. These rolls will keep for weeks as long as they don’t dry out.
Variation: If you have leftover caramel, cut it into pieces, place each on a small square of waxed paper and twist paper ends.
Caramel pecan nut roll is what you might consider an “advanced” recipe for experienced cooks, but I’ve taught dozens of people how to make it and you can make your own and have a lot of fun doing it.
- 4 cups sugar
- ¼ cup corn syrup
- 1 cup cream
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup water
- ½ cube butter
- Have slab ready, cold and damp.
- Put sugar, cream, corn syrup, salt, and butter in a heavy pan.
- Bring to boil and wash sides of pan down with wet pastry brush.
- Cook to 228°-229° F.
- Pour on cold, damp slab (or use a cold, damp 9x13-inch glass pan) and allow to cool until it is neither warm nor cold.
- Stir until the fondant becomes kneadable.
- Knead in flavoring and/or coloring as desired.