A Tale Of Two Pralines

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on June 17, 2015

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.comI’ve never been one of those people who liked very sweet or sugary treats. Confections like fudge or southern style pralines were never my go to treats because I always found them overly sweet and grainy. Over the years, I heard the same complaints from others, especially those watching their carb intake. But, in recent years, candy makers have given these traditional recipes a significant makeover. They may still be sweet, but they are much creamier and more palatable than they used to be.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a Chamber of Commerce meeting welcoming new members. Shortly after the meeting got underway, a lady walked in with a basket full of small packages. She began to pass them out to everyone in her path as she made her way to her seat. She handed one to me and said, “here are some homemade prah-leens, enjoy!”

I had never had a prah-leen before, let alone a homemade one. So, I peeled open the wrapper and found two small, caramel colored nuggets packed with with what appeared to be chopped nuts. I broke off a small piece and popped it in my mouth — then took another and another until they were all gone. They were sweet, but not horribly so and I couldn’t get over how creamy they were. They were firm, not chewy like a toffee, and the plentiful pecans were a lovely crunchy compliment to the creamy coating.

I came to find out that these pralines (pronounced prah-leens) are the favored confections of southerners, usually prepared during the Christmas holidays when they are served at parties and given away as gifts.

The predecessor of these southern delicacies, were early French pralines inspired by a 17th century cook who prepared them for César du Plessis-Praslin, who was also the Marshal of France.  These early pralines consisted of whole almonds (or hazelnuts) that were gently cooked and coated in caramelized sugar. These caramelized nuts are still very popular today and often found in high end chocolate shops. I made a batch of these delicious French pralines last year and topped it with a delicious flaked salt that I got from the Wild Hibiscus Company. That unforgettable sweet, salty and crunchy combination has my friends still singing the praises of that delicious snack to this day.

Nowadays, European countries define the word praline as not only caramelized nuts, but also a nut powder made from these caramelized nuts or a chocolate paste made with the nut powder from the caramelized nuts. It’s confusing, I know. When a chocolate is described as a praline, it means that it is filled with that nutty, chocolate paste. You can see that depending on where you are, the same word has very different definitions.

When French colonists arrived in the south, the French recipe of caramelized nuts was transformed into the Creole delicacy we know today with the addition of butter, milk and/or cream. The Creole version also substituted pecans, which are plentiful in the south, instead of the traditional almonds and hazelnuts. Many households in the south have family recipes that have been handed down, and those that don’t search for a dependable way to make this finicky confection.

These were always something I wanted to try making for myself, but the finicky nature of this treat had me on the lookout for the perfect recipe — after all, sugar, nuts, cream, butter and milk are all expensive ingredients, so I don’t take it very lightly when there is a high possibility of failure. There were literally hundreds of recipes online to choose from — each claiming to be the best. I knew what I wanted them to taste like, but the key was not only to find a good, solid recipe but also an accompanying list of dependable directions that could get me there.

Since the state of Louisiana (and particularly the city of New Orleans) are especially known for pralines, I looked for recipes from well known culinarians in that area. I came across recipes from two acclaimed New Orleans chefs – one is from Anne Leonhard, the gregarious and entertaining teacher from the New Orleans School of Cooking and the other is from Chef Paul Prudhomme, the ex- Executive Chef of the Commander’s Palace (who hired Emeril upon his departure). Chef Paul went on to do great things on his own and is credited with popularizing Creole cuisine through his love of cooking and his popular line of Creole spice blends.

Many online posts were using Anne’s recipe, but I didn’t find consistent directions in how to put them together. Chef Paul’s recipe was used by someone who wanted to compare it to the taste and texture of their own family recipe, and only the recipe with very simple directions were offered up. So, it looked like I was going to have to take the information that was out there and then fill in the blanks on my own.

I decided that if I was going to choose the best, I needed to try both recipes —  the ultimate goal was to see if either of these recipes came close to what I had tasted a few years before.

The result?

Chef Paul’s recipe was less sweet and much creamier than Anne’s. Both recipes use a combination of both granulated and brown sugars, but Anne used significantly more of both. I found that using a combination of both is important in the resulting flavor (and color) profile of the praline, but there is a fine line between how much of each to use. The final result should have a delicate sweetness and nice beige color.

Anne’s recipe also used 1 tablespoon of corn syrup and Chef Paul’s did not. I know from experience, that corn syrup is added to boiling sugar to prevent crystallization (early on), so this was definitely something I was going to add. This particular step is very important to understand because pralines come together in a controlled crystallization process. I say controlled because the crystallization is initiated at the end of the cooking process and not at the beginning. If your sugar begins to crystallize early on, you will have a very brittle and very grainy result. Once sugar has crystallized, you cannot fix it, regardless of what anyone tells you. You can heat it slowly which will dissolve the crystals, but once the sugar cools, it will crystallize again.

Anne’s recipe uses only milk which is added in the beginning of the cooking process along with all of her other ingredients, whereas Chef Paul uses both milk and heavy cream. Next time, I would like to try Chef Paul’s recipe using all cream to see if it offers extra creaminess.

One thing I did differently than directions provided by Chef Paul, was to add the milk with the butter and sugar to cook until the desired temperature, and then I added the cream and the vanilla together at the very end. I chose to do this because this is an acceptable process used when making creamy toffees. Since I wanted a creamy result, I knew this would make a difference – and it did. Properly made pralines will be sweet but very creamy – once placed on your tongue, they should just melt.

I made these several times to get used to the process and ended up using roasted pecans in one batch, roasted pecans and coconut in another batch and roasted almonds and coconut in a third batch. If you are not a fan of pecans, use whatever nuts you prefer.

I was the lucky recipient of some really good coconut products from a company called Franklin Baker. One of the items was a bag of super crispy and delicious salted coconut flakes that were both sweet and salty and as crisp as a potato chip. If you ever come across the product, make sure to pick some up. This was not like anything else I had ever had before and really wanted to do it justice. The addition of these crisp, sweet and salty flakes were a perfect accompaniment to the pralines and further enhanced the eating experience.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Important things to remember when making pralines
1. Make sure that all of your utensils are clean and grease free. Sugar is very finicky to work with and will crystallize easily.
2. Always use a heavy bottomed pot to make the pralines which will disperse heat evenly. Uneven heat distribution or fiddling too much with the temperature of the sugar can also lead to crystallization.
3. Always make sure that all of your ingredients are pre-measured and ready to use because once the sugar starts to boil, things move fairly quickly.
4. Use a wooden spoon when cooking pralines in a metal pot. Although both wood and metal will create friction and crystallize sugar, a metal spoon is worse to deal with and will also become very hot to handle as you stir the cooking sugar.
5. Always use a little corn syrup to help prevent crystallization. DO NOT add powders like cream of tartar which might initiate early crystallization.
6. Use a candy thermometer to make sure you are hitting the right temperatures. The higher temperatures will create a more stable confection. I cooked the sugar mixture to 240°F, then slowly poured in the vanilla and cream mixture. This dropped the temperature a few degrees, so I put it back on the stove and continued to heat it until it got back up to 236°F. I then removed the sugar from the heat, added the nut mixture, and stirred a little more.
7. Always make sure that your nuts are hand chopped and not chopped with a food processor. The food processor creates a lot of finely ground particles (nut flour) which can also create crystallization. Make sure that your nut mixture is kept slightly warm. This will prevent the praline sugar from seizing and becoming too stiff to spoon out onto your tray.
8. DO NOT EVER use wax paper for hot candy. Make sure to line your sheet pan with parchment paper. I don’t know why people use wax paper!
9. Do not over stir the mixture when the sugar is cooking initially. Just stir it occasionally with a wooden spoon to make sure that especially the bottom edges of the pot do not burn.
10. Once you add in the warm nuts, only stir the mixture enough to where it begins to slightly thicken, lose its sheen and become slightly opaque. Do not over stir it at this point or it will become grainy.
11. Work in small batches. If your batch is too large you may not be able to keep it warm enough to spoon out onto your parchment lined sheet tray before the mixture hardens.

Anne Leonhard’s Recipe
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
¾ cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
6 tablespoons salted butter (3/4 of a stick)
1 tablespoon corn syrup
½ cup milk (or evaporated milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla

If you would like to try Anne’s recipe, here is the link for the directions.

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Praline Recipe (makes 1 dozen)
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
6 tablespoons butter (3/4 of a stick)
1 tablespoon corn syrup ***(I added this)
½ cup whole milk (or use evaporated milk)
¼ cup heavy cream, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (or use maple extract if using pecans)
1 ½ cups roasted, hand chopped pecans, keep warm (I used a combo of nuts and shredded coconut)

Place your hand chopped, roasted  nuts on a piece of foil and keep them warm. Measure out the ¼ cup of cream and add the 1 tablespoon of vanilla to this also. To keep mine warm, I usually use my toaster oven. In a heavy bottomed pot place both types of sugar, corn syrup, milk and butter to melt on moderately low heat.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Leave it on this setting for the duration and do not play around with the temperature. Attach your candy thermometer to the side of the pot and make sure that the tip of the thermometer is in the liquid in the pot and not touching the bottom of the pan. Use your wooden spoon to gently and only occasionally, stir the mixture until it all melts, then remove the spoon. DO NOT ever leave this unattended, because the sugar will cook fairly quickly. As you see the mixture starting to thicken and the bubbles in the sugar begin to bubble even slower, stay vigilant and continue to occasionally stir the pot with your wooden spoon. Make sure to especially stir the bottom edges of the pot because they tend to burn fast.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Don’t worry about the ring forming around the pot. This is due to the residue foam leftover from the melting butter, as the fat separates from the milk solids…it is NOT crystallizing sugar…

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Cook this to the higher end of soft ball stage —  I cooked mine to 240°F and then took it off the heat and slowly poured in the heavy cream and vanilla.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

I gently stirred the mixture off the heat, then put it back on the heat until the temperature got back up to 236°F. I then took the mixture off the heat and poured in my warm nut and coconut mixture.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

I gently stirred about 10-15 strokes before the mixture became thicker, lost some of its sheen and became slightly opaque. Can you see it? This is a little challenging to see, but you will definitely feel the mixture getting thicker.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

At this point, spoon the mixture onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper (NOT WAX PAPER). Allow them to cool completely, then store at room temperature in a lidded Tupperware container.

A Tale Of Two Pralines, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

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