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GREAT HOME COOKS : The Princess of Pralines


The oven timer has just gone off in Patricia McGarvey's West Los Angeles kitchen, a sunny, lemon-yellow room with a white enamel Roper stove from the '30s and an exercise bicycle in the breakfast nook. Against one wall stands an antique cupboard fitted with leaded-glass windows and a wooden door that conceals a huge antique flour sifter.

McGarvey, a pretty, dark-haired woman, pulls a finished Cheese and Vegetable Pie out of the stove, touching the center to make sure the filling is set. Now, she says, it's time to start her famous Pecan Pralines.

"I've been cooking since about age 9," she says as she measures white and brown sugar into an enameled cast-iron casserole. "My Mom was a great cook, and when I was as little as 4 or 5, I was making cinnamon rolls with leftover pie dough. I guess I really got into it when we went to live in Japan; it was either learn about new foods or starve, and as a teen-ager, starving was not an option."

A self-described "Air Force brat," McGarvey has lived in Japan, England, Alabama, Texas, Virginia and California--among other places. At each stop, it seems, she picked up a favorite food or two and has combined them into a formidable repertoire.

"Whenever I look at the price of pecans," she says, "it reminds me of when I lived in Abilene. I would always ride my horse through pecan groves and when I wanted some nuts, I could just rake up as many as I could carry."

Adding milk to the sugar, McGarvey grabs a wooden spoon and begins to stir. "These pecan pralines are my oldest recipe," she says. "The first time I made them, they started to cook too fast and then started to clump up on me. I just let them clump, then put the pot back on the heat and added hot water, a tablespoon at a time, and beat all the clumps out.

"I found that it made them taste better than the original pralines, which were too crystalline. These are really creamy, like the ones I remember from Farolita's Mexican food restaurant in Abilene, which is where I had the best pecan pralines ever.

"When I first made this, the instructions said to be careful when you were heating the milk and sugar because it would boil up and could burn you," she says, still stirring. "The first couple of years I used the world's longest wooden spoon and rubber gloves. Now I've got asbestos fingers."

"I love to cook," says McGarvey, "but my biggest problem is that I can't cook for less than six people. My smallest pot is like a cauldron. I learned to cook with my family, but now my family's scattered all over the United States. So I make my own family. At least once a week I invite people over and cook dinner for them. If I'm not cooking for other people, I just don't enjoy it as much."

McGarvey was nominated as a Great Home Cook by Karyn Zoldan. The two met via computer. Zoldan runs a public-access computer bulletin board called Modem Butterfly's Connection. McGarvey, a computer consultant to small businesses who lays claim to being the "queen of culinary trivia," now runs the board's food club. (The club, which can be reached by modem at (310) 841-6900 or (818) 787-6900, now numbers about 1,000 subscribers, who pay roughly $45 a year to sign on and chat.)

"From the first I thought she was incredibly articulate and very knowledgeable about a lot of things," says Zoldan. "She took me for the special tamales at El Cholo. I took her to the Grand Central Market and then to La Serenata de Garibaldi. We like to go exploring together."

As she continues to stir, McGarvey watches the candy thermometer carefully. The praline syrup should cook to 255 degrees. After a few minutes, discretion gets the better part of valor and she discards her wooden spoon ("This one was getting just a little too short") and picks up a long-handled rice stirrer.

Once the praline mixture reaches the correct temperature, she removes it from the heat and lets it stand. Then she begins to beat it vigorously with the rice stirrer. One moment shiny and glossy, it seizes almost instantly, clumping up so it looks like grainy, poorly beaten cake frosting.

"See, that's what you look for," McGarvey says. "When it does that, put it back on the heat and add the hot water and beat it until the lumps come out. This is what takes a great right arm. Whenever my sister asks me to fix these for her, I tell her if she wants to come help, that's the only way she's getting any."

A fine sweat breaks out on her forehead, and she begins to puff a bit as she vigorously beats the sugar syrup.

"According to the original recipe, this is when you put the pecans in and pour it out onto wax paper. Yeah right," she says. "It really looks like, 'Oh my God, I've ruined it,' but it always comes out. Just wait till you taste."

As she says that, the syrup smoothes out and re-liquefies. With an easy, practiced motion, she picks up a stack of paper muffin cups and distributes them on a pull-out cutting board. Into each cup she places three or four pecans. She ladles the syrup in on top.

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