This ice cream is NOT good for you. Let’s just get that out of the way at the beginning. It contains so many calories and so much saturated fat that you should only indulge in it once a year.
That said, this ice cream is legendary. If you’re not familiar with the flavor “Butter Pecan” it’s understandable. It’s primarily a Southern thing. Pecans are one of our few native nut trees in Texas, and the pecan is a staple ingredient down here, and across the cultural South. Most recipes for Butter Pecan ice cream call for sauteeing the pecans in butter. While this definitely results in a delicious buttery nut, once that nut goes into the ice cream base, it gets soggy. And, at least to me, chewing on a soggy nut definitely takes away from the flavor and texture of the ice cream. So, for the past decade, I’ve been perfecting my own version, and here’s how to make it.
Candying the pecans coats them with a crisp layer of buttery caramel candy which helps prevent them from getting soggy. First take about:
8 ounces pecans
Break them up into pieces with your fingers. This takes longer than chopping them, but chopping results in a lot of fine pecan meal, which you don’t want in your ice cream. Put them in a glass or ceramic bowl and toast them in the microwave in 30 second increments, stirring between each increment, until the white part of the meat begins to turn tan, and you can hear the pecans sizzling and smell a toasted smell coming from them. Set them aside to cool.
Prepare your surface for spreading out the candied nuts. I use a silicone pad (silpat) which is indispensable in my kitchen, and not just for making candy and chocolate. If you don’t have one, your best option is to butter the bare surface of a baking sheet.
In the heaviest skillet you can find, combine:
2 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons honey or corn syrup (the glucose in these ingredients helps keep the candy from crystallizing, allowing you to stir the candy as it cooks, and results in a thin, clear syrup that solidifies nicely)
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons water
Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring gently and occasionally. Be cautious with this if you haven’t made candy before. Boiling sugar rises well above the boiling point of water, and it’s incredibly sticky. If you get it on your skin, it will burn you FAR worse than scalding water can, and unlike water, it sticks there and continues burning you. So exercise caution when working with boiling sugar. Bring the candy to at least 300F on a candy thermometer. (Attempting to make candy without a candy thermometer generally fails. They’re not expensive. Get one. Or just get a multi-purpose remote-probe thermometer that you can also use for cooking meats, making cheese and beer, etc.) How high you take the caramel is up to you. It will harden up nicely if you take it to 300F. The closer you take it to 375F, the darker and more intense the flavor will be. For this recipe, I generally stop around 320F.
Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the toasted pecans. Fold the pecans gently with the liquid caramel to coat them evenly. Then CAREFULLY pour them out onto your prepared cooling surface and immediately spread them out as much as possible with a spoon or spatula. The more you spread them out now, the better the final result will be. If they are all in a big clump when they cool, you’ll have to break that clump up, which will expose bits of the pecan and allow them to get soggy in the ice cream. They cool VERY quickly, so you only have 30-60 seconds before you can’t spread them any more.
Once they are fully cool, break them up, if necessary. You’ll probably have quite a bit more candied pecans than you’ll want to put in your ice cream, and there’s a reason for this. They are ADDICTIVELY delicious, and you will be munching on them as the ice cream freezes and will want lots leftover to snack on.
ICE CREAM BASE
(makes 1 gallon, so adjust for the capacity of your machine!)
In a large, heavy pot, combine:
2 cups maple syrup (the secret ingredient, and the glucose content of the syrup helps the ice cream stay soft after days in the freezer)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup honey or corn syrup (more concentrated glucose to improve the texture of the ice cream)
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
4 cans evaporated milk (NOT sweetened condensed milk!!! If you don’t like using cans, take a gallon of milk and simmer it slowly, stirring constantly, over medium heat until it is reduced by half, which can take an hour or longer. This results in a rich, creamy liquid that has a caramel-like flavor from the lactose sugars that were caramelized in the process.)
Heat them gently over medium heat, stirring occasionally. DO NOT let it boil. In the meantime, in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine:
12 egg yolks (yes, you read that right)
1/2 cup white sugar
2 Tablespoons water
Beat them at medium speed until they are fluffy, thick, and pale. When your milk mixture on the stove is scalding hot, but not yet at a simmer, begin pouring the hot milk in a thin stream into the yolks with the mixer still on medium-low speed. This is called “tempering” and it slowly brings the temperature of the yolks up without cooking and scrambling them. Once you have about 1/3 of the milk incorporated into the yolks, you can stop the mixer. Then, begin stirring the milk with a whisk, and slowly pour the hot yolks into the pot of hot milk. Return this to the stove and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 150 degrees. (This pasteurizes the yolks.) Remove from the heat and continue to stir another minute or so. Then add:
1 quart heavy cream
2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
Then place the pot into a sink filled with ice water and stir constantly for 5 minutes to bring down the temperature of the base. Cover the pot and let it sit in the ice bath, adding more ice if necessary, to bring it down to around room temperature. Then place the base in the fridge for several hours, or overnight, to bring it down to around 34F. It will freeze faster this way, resulting in smaller ice crystals. If you try to freeze it at room temperature, it will take much longer, resulting in a coarser texture from larger ice crystals.
Once your base is chilled, prepare your ice cream maker. Pour the base into the machine, then fill to the 1 gallon line with:
whole milk or half and half (you shouldn’t need very much)
Freeze according to your machine’s own instructions. While the ice cream is freezing, place the container(s) it will be stored in into your freezer to chill down, along with a spatula or spoon. Spread a doubled bath towel on your counter or table as insulation, and get your candied pecans ready.
As soon as the ice cream is frozen, pull the chilled container(s) from the freezer and place on the towel. Then quickly remove the ice cream from the machine and empty it into the container(s). Add the nuts to the ice cream and fold them in quickly with the chilled spatula. Add as much or as little as you like. Then immediately put the ice cream in the freezer.
Because of the high fat and glucose content of this ice cream, it won’t get rock hard in your freezer like most homemade ice creams do. An ice cream scoop will sink easily into it, even after a week in the freezer. It’s so delicious it’s not likely to hang around for long, but store it with a layer of plastic wrap or foil pressed down directly onto the surface of the ice cream, to help prevent ice crystals from forming.
And, again…this is one of the most delicious things you will EVER eat, but don’t go hog wild on it. I don’t even want to begin to tally up the fat and calorie content of this ice cream. It should be treated as a rare indulgence!