A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were chatting about this here little blog, and she remarked, “I really love pralines.” Another colleague who happened to be close by heard the word “praline,” and immediately chimed in, “Oh, I love those!”
This was my first time trying my hand at New Orleans pralines, those creamy, and slightly crumbly confections rich with brown sugar and chock-full of pecans. I’d say that I don’t know why I’ve never attempted these before, but that’s not true. First, there’s the pronunciation issue. Is it PRAY-leen? Or PRAH-leen? Or prah-LEEN? Surely a mispronunciation would be grounds for a Big Easy candy-maker to pull out a bag of gris-gris, form a quick praline figure, and work some culinary voodoo on me. My Google-fu informs me that the pronunciation favored by the denizens of New Orleans is PRAH-leen and not PRAY-leen. Now if only I could remember that without having Google sitting open in front of me.
My second source of hesitation, of course, is the humidity problem. I’ve always heard–and as countless ruined batches of fudge and divinity can surely attest–that candy making and humidity were mutually exclusive. Since I live in the fair state of North Carolina, a state renowned for, among other things, its heat and humidity, I’ve been pretty happy to leave the candy-making to those in less moisture-soaked climes and states. Until, that is, the question “Since when it is NOT humid in the state of Louisiana, and more specifically in New Orleans?” finally occurred to me. Duh. Since the people (all two of them!) had spoken, I decided to suck it up and just make the dang candy.
While pralines actually began as a sugar-coated almonds in seventeenth century France (and praline today continues to be a generic term for nut brittles that are often ground into pastes for pastries and other sweets), once the confection crossed the Atlantic, the enterprising inhabitants of New Orleans substituted the more readily available and abundant pecans. I’m sure you could substitute a nut of your choice, but I’m pretty sure that your pralines would not be New Orleans pralines.
I toasted my pecans before roughly crumbling them. Although this step is optional, I highly encourage you to take the few extra minutes and toast the nuts to give your finished pralines an extra boost of pecan flavor.
After the pecans toast, all of the ingredients are brought to a boil and cooked until the syrup reaches the soft ball stage. The pecan-syrup mixture is removed from the heat, and then–in contradistinction to every rule of candy-making I’ve ever heard, which caution against stirring lest the agitation encourage the formation of sugar crystals–the hot candy is vigorously beaten for a few minutes. Once the mixture thickens, lightens in color, and becomes crystalline (you will actually be able to hear it scraping against the sides and bottom of the pan as you stir), it’s quickly dropped by large spoonfuls onto waxed paper.