These cute little turtle clusters are so much more than meets the eye. It's hard to resist their addictive combination of buttery pecans and chewy homemade caramel nestled under a creamy milk chocolate shell. So hard to resist, in fact, that I recommend making a double batch if you have any hopes of sharing.
These retro clusters get their name from, you guessed it, their resemblance to actual turtles. (If only real turtles tasted so good!) The original Turtles brand of candy, which has been around since 1918, consists of peanuts, caramel, and chocolate, but the homemade confections are usually made with pecans.
I didn't grow up eating these morsels of nostalgia; it was actually after college — during my event planning days — when I discovered these reptilian-inspired wonders. Turtle clusters were a fancy client's favorite treat, so at her 60th birthday party we offered boxes from a world-renowned chocolatier as a parting favor to guests. I was too busy running around that day to even sample one, but ever since then a perpetual craving seemed to stick. (I guess if turtles were good enough for her then I knew they would be good enough for me!)
Well I finally got around to settling that craving, and boy oh boy, I'm so glad I did. There are plenty of recipes out there involving nothing more than unwrapping a caramel square on top of a pile of nuts and finishing it off with a blob of melted chocolate, but I knew if I was going to make turtles at home then I was going to make them right. And it turns out that not only are they pretty easy to put together, their taste is out of this world. I can't believe what I've been missing out on for all these years!!
As a good Southerner, I prefer my toasted pecans with lots of butter and salt, so I knew that's how I had to get this recipe started. The only downfall? Trying not to eat them all before moving on to the next step.
The most important element — and the easiest to mess up — was the caramel recipe, so I whipped up a few batches to make sure I got it exactly right. My first attempt was using my favorite go-to caramel recipe, but the loaded, just-on-the-cusp-of-burnt flavor I normally prefer didn't actually play well with the other flavors, not to mention that it didn't seem to want to set up. The winning batch ended up being cooked along with a hefty dose of heavy cream, and it yielded an absolutely perfect chew with a heavenly vanilla finish. And since I wanted my turtles to lean heavily towards the sweet side, I finished them off with a thick milk chocolate coat, the kind that definitely helps get a girl through winter.
And now that I know how to make this spectacular treat, I hope it's going to be a long winter...
For the pecans
16 ounces pecan halves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
For the caramel
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the chocolate coating
12 ounces good-quality semisweet or milk chocolate (not chips), roughly chopped
For the pecans, preheat oven to 350°F. Toss pecan halves with melted butter and kosher salt and spread onto a large sheet pan. Toast the pecans, stirring halfway through cooking, until fragrant and golden, about 10 minutes; set aside until cool enough to handle.
Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and arrange cooled pecans into X-shaped clusters. (Feel free to reserve a handful of intact pieces to use as a garnish for the turtles.) Any remaining broken pecan pieces can be arranged into small mounds to yield a more rustic-shaped cluster.
For the caramel, combine the cream, sugars, and corn syrup in a medium-sized, heavy saucepan and whisk until incorporated. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. DO NOT STIR the mixture after it comes to a boil; if necessary, dip a pastry brush in water and brush down the sides of the pot to remove any sugar stuck to the sides. Continue boiling the mixture until it reaches 250°F on an instant read thermometer, about 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in butter and vanilla.
Transfer the caramel to a smaller bowl. Working quickly, spoon a generous teaspoon or so over each cluster of pecans. Allow clusters to set, uncovered and undisturbed, for at least two hours but preferably overnight.
To melt and temper the chocolate coating, prepare a double boiler or set a heatproof bowl over barely simmering water. Add approximately 3/4 of the chocolate (the remainder will get added in after the initial heating) to the top of the boiler. Melt the chocolate, stirring often, until it reaches the following temperature(s) on an instant read thermometer — 116 to 120°F for semisweet; 110 to 112°F for milk chocolate —and immediately remove from the heat. Add the reserved chocolate and continue stirring until the temperature drops to the following: 82 to 86°F for semisweet; 80 to 84°F for milk chocolate. Return the chocolate to the boiler and heat on low until the temperature rises back up to 90°F, watching carefully to make sure the chocolate does not exceed the temperature. (Alternatively, follow this guide for How to Temper Chocolate Without a Thermometer)
Drizzle the tempered chocolate (or transfer to a disposable pastry bag and pipe) over the pecan clusters. Set aside in a cool place to set. Turtles will keep for up to two weeks, stored between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container at room temperature.
Like most candies with caramel, turtle clusters are fairly sticky, so before placing them in the glassine gift bags, I made makeshift "pouches" by stapling together a rectangular strip of wax paper around each turtle; this keeps the turtles from sticking to each other and from messing up the gift bag.