I consider this recipe a very personal gift to my friends, family, and colleagues who have been on the receiving end of my highly anticipated “Christmas Pecans” every December. These coated nuts are sweet, crunchy, buttery gems of goodness—practically irresistible. They are a delectable finish to a holiday meal served along with dessert, and if you ask my husband he’ll tell you they are perfection served with a tumbler of bourbon straight-up. One colleague tosses some into a mesclun salad with sweetened dried cranberries and blue cheese as the starter to her Christmas Eve dinner.
Over the years, many have asked for the recipe and I have never given it out. In fact, I believe this is the only recipe I have never shared. Twenty years ago, I started baking these pecans as a scrumptious food gift to give at Christmastime. I took them as a hostess gift at holiday cocktail parties and open houses, I made some to have on the table at my own Christmas parties, and then I started mailing them to friends and colleagues around the country. Pretty soon the list grew longer and what started as a morning baking a couple of pounds of pecans turned into a production schedule baking almost twenty pounds. If it sounds like a chore, it isn’t; in fact, quite the opposite, as it now feels like my special yearly tradition. Every fall, I order white laminated candy boxes that hold about a half pound of nuts, look for fun Christmas ribbons and gift tags, and make my list—checking it twice—to make sure I’m not missing anyone. Now, I am sharing this gift recipe with everyone!
Makes 1 pound
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 egg whites at room temperature (see Cook’s Notes)
1/8 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup packed golden brown sugar
1 pound large or jumbo pecan halves shelled
Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Have ready a large, rimmed baking sheet, preferably nonstick for easier clean up.
Melt the butter on the baking sheet in the oven. Be careful not to let the butter brown.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add the salt and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Pour the vanilla over the brown sugar. Add the sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating on high speed to form a strong, shiny meringue. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the nuts until they are well coated.
Gently tip the rimmed baking sheet so the butter coats the bottom of the pan. Using a rubber spatula, spread the nuts over the butter, without stirring, to form an even layer without deflating the meringue.
Bake the nuts for 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and stir the nuts with a spatula so the nuts at the center of the pan are moved to the outer rim and those at the edges are closer to the center. Bake the nuts for 15 minutes longer and stir them again. Continue baking for another 45 minutes to an hour, stirring every 15 minutes, until the nuts are separated, have absorbed the butter and glisten, and are beautifully browned but not dark brown. Immediately turn them out on a counter lined with a long sheet of aluminum foil and spread them to cool. Allow them to cool completely. Store in a tightly covered tin, covered glass container, or wrap in gift boxes lined with decorative waxed paper. The nuts will keep for 2 to 3 weeks.