Family Recipe Gone Wrong: Chocolate Peanut Clusters

We all have our family cooking lore: famed recipes that get passed down from generation to generation, and others that just get lost somewhere in between. Either a selfish cook doesn't share his closely-guarded secret, or a recipe doesn't get written down until it is too late. And then there's the cherished recipe that fails—perhaps it lacks a key ingredient or important step. These chocolate peanut clusters? They only lacked one thing. My Nana.
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My Grandmother Dozier was a fiercely devoted Baptist preacher's wife and took great pride in running an efficient house and home. She was also a mighty fine cook. I have vivid childhood memories of cooking by her side, and a few of my best Southern recipes come from her small, yet efficient, Georgia kitchen.

As children and grandchildren often do, I grew up and lost interest in cracking pecans and rolling out the pastry for pie. It seemed I had far more important "teenager" things to do. I no longer offered to help and she eventually stopped asking. After my grandfather died, she moved into an assisted living home and quit cooking altogether.

It was a number of years later—far, far away in California—when I stepped foot in the kitchen again. I had a new boyfriend, from Georgia no less, and I wanted to impress him with my vast domestic knowledge (which I was severely lacking at the time). The first dinner I made him was my mother's chicken tetrazzini followed by Nana's famous chocolate pie. It must have done the trick.

The nostalgia from that food alone was enough to spur a career change, and I have spent the past five years chasing my Southern (culinary) roots. The place to start? Nana's recipe box. Unfortunately she was in her late nineties by the time I asked for her collection, and it was much too late. Assuming that none of her grandchildren were interested in cooking, she gave all her cherished index cards to the ladies of her church.

I was devastated. Of course I wasn't angry at Nana—I had no right to be—but angry at myself for all the years I was just "too busy." I clung to the few recipes I did have and hoped the others would live on with folks wiser than me. Surely they would be appreciated...

My wonderful Nana passed away last January at the age of 103. We chose to celebrate her long, prosperous life instead of mourning her loss. A few weeks after her death I received a nondescript manilla envelope in the mail: it was a letter from the grave. In her last months alive, she asked her dear nurse to dig out the last few remaining recipe cards. The nurse photocopied the cards for me, and Nana penciled in the names of the sources. The nurse made sure the collection made it to me. It was one of the kindest gifts I have ever received.

For family recipe week, I decided to finally sift through the pile and make something I had never before tried. Most of the choices were uber retro—think Ritz cracker pie, congealed salad, and hot beef spread—but there were plenty of redeeming recipes that I could not wait to make. Which brings me to the chocolate peanut clusters practically shouting for my attention. Just an easy snack and plenty old-school enough. Maybe I'd even discover a family gem?

As you can see from the photos the recipe was not a success. The "clusters" were more "runny mess." I had so many nagging questions as I went, and without my Nana to guide me I stumbled through the steps. And it uses Jell-O for goodness sake, an ingredient that is actually quite mysterious to me. (What, did you actually think we Kitchn contributors don't have major kitchen failures, too!?)

I am posting her exact recipe here to show that sometimes we can't always fill in the blanks. Sometimes we need an extra voice to nudge us along. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, can be that extra voice. Maybe your grandma owned this same recipe? Or you make them all the time? Together, maybe, we can keep this family recipe from disappearing through the hands of time.

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Chocolate Peanut Clusters

Makes 24 clusters

1 (3.4 ounce) package chocolate pudding (not instant)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon butter (or margarine)
1 cup roasted peanuts

Combine chocolate pudding mix, sugar, evaporated milk, and butter in a medium saucepan. Cook 3 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and quickly stir in peanuts. Beat until candy thickens, about 15 minutes. Quickly drop from teaspoons onto waxed paper forming clusters.

My many questions: Did I not cook the pudding mixture long enough, or did I quit beating it before it was thick enough (I went 15 minutes in a stand mixer)? Did I not let the formed clusters set up long enough? Do they need to be refrigerated and if so for how long? What are these really supposed to look like? Help me!!

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Related: Family Recipe: Chicken and Dumplings

(Images: Nealey Dozier)

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