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Pecan brittle is a candy made with pecans and sugar or corn syrup. Although nut brittles have a long culinary history, pecan brittles are newer because pecans are a New World tree nut. Generally, nut brittles are based on the French croquant and the Italian croccante. The texture of the brittle depends on the cooking technique and it might be very hard and clear or porous and opaque. Many families have a tradition of making pecan brittle for family and friends during some holiday seasons.
Nut brittle is a simple candy that many people make in their home kitchens. The simplest process consists of bringing sugar, corn syrup or other sweetener to the caramel stage and pouring it over nuts. A cook should stretch the hot candy mass into a thin sheet before cooling. The thinness of the candy is what makes it brittle — hence the name. Most recipes advise cooks to use white cotton gloves or thick rubber gloves while stretching the candy to lessen the chance of burns.
Often, pecan brittle recipes list the ingredients as sugar or corn syrup, pecans, salt, butter and baking soda. Other common ingredients include vanilla or other extract flavoring and other nut varieties. To make a more porous brittle, some candy makers add cream of tartar. Some people add unusual ingredients, such as hot chili peppers, bacon or cayenne powder. Sweet ingredients can include coconut, dried fruits and chocolate.
The French croquant is similar to brittle. Generally, it includes sugar, honey and almonds. The Italian croccante is softer than the French candy because the recipe includes butter. Both of these confections are the forerunners of pecan brittle.
The pecan tree is native to North America. Typically, the tree grows from southern Iowa in the United States to parts of Mexico as far south as Veracruz. Although the outside shell is smooth, the nutmeat is ridged because it conforms to the inner pockets in the shell. The pecan is a member of the hickory family, and some cooks use hickory nuts to make brittle.
Recipes for the home cook suggest cooking the brittle on a stove top or in the microwave. Many commercial kitchens use copper kettles, but copper is not necessary. Often, stainless steel cookware is used, but a cook should not use aluminum pots, because of the leaching of the metal into the brittle mix. A candy thermometer is often necessary to determine the proper temperature, although some experienced cooks have other methods of determining when the brittle is ready.
Commercially, candy makers offer other varieties of pecan brittle. Some companies offer sugar-free or reduced sugar brittle. Many commercial candy makers add other ingredients, including flavored extracts, spices such as cinnamon, and unusual add-ins. Bacon is a popular novelty item, as are a variety of hot peppers, including dried cayenne peppers. Some companies offer chocolate in the brittle or brittle that has been dipped in melted chocolate.