7 Tips for Making Better Pralines
There are different levels to each talent we possess. You can paint beautiful watercolors but never attempt a portrait in oil. Or you can sew stunning wedding dresses but never stitch a quilt. In my case, I could bake cakes, cookies, casseroles, and more, but I couldn't master the pecan praline, a stumbling block that kept me from believing that I was a True Southern Cook. I recently set out to remedy that situation and, like a dog with a bone, did not give up until I had produced a batch of creamy and delicious Buttermilk-Pecan Pralines. Here are a few things I learned along the way.
First Thing: Prepare the Countertop
The praline process is time sensitive, so have your countertop area ready before you pour the first cup of sugar into the pan. Your recipe will instruct you to use either parchment paper or aluminum foil – either will work fine. Never use wax paper (I speak from experience on this one). The heat of the pralines will melt the wax off the paper.
Follow the Recipe Exactly as Written
Many recipes lend themselves to tweaking with wild abandon. Main dish salads, soups and stews can be modified, without altering the quality of the dish, according to the produce and proteins you have on hand. You can add ingredients, leave some out, or even double the recipe without worrying about ruining it. Candy making, however, is a different matter. Never make substitutions for ingredients and do not double the recipe -the proportions and times have been worked out for the recipes as they are printed. The problem with doubling the recipe, other than your pot may not be big enough and it would take way too long for the sugar to melt, is that you wouldn't be able to drop the pralines fast enough before the syrup cooled and hardened in the pot. The safest way to double your yield when making pralines is to make two separate batches.
Your Candy Thermometer is Your Friend
Don't even try to make pralines for the first time without a candy thermometer. An experienced candy maker may be able to eye-ball it and just know when the syrup has reached each stage, but you probably aren't there yet. Attach the thermometer to your saucepan and keep your eyes on the needle as it climbs. Keep in mind that this is not the type of cooking process where you can stir a little then walk away to perform other chores. You need to stand watch and adjust the temperature on the stove to keep the temperature in the pan at the right level for the required amount of time.
Avoid the Humidity
That is easier said than done. It is ironic that the praline is such a classic in New Orleans, Charleston, and other coastal areas, where the humidity can be so problematic to candy making. But they get it done, somehow. Plan to make your pralines on a cool, dry day. If it's humid or rainy, as it was the first time I made pralines, the candy might end up with a more sugary, grainy texture. While delicious, my first batch never did fully harden. If you are making candy on a hot or humid day, cook the candy until the thermometer registers 1 to 2 degrees higher than the recipe specifies. A bad batch of pralines is never a waste, however. Simply crumble them up and stir into ice cream, or roll the pralines into balls and dip into chocolate.
Use the Right Pan
Use a heavy saucepan with thick sides and a thick bottom so that it will conduct heat evenly. Candy mixtures can triple in volume as they cook, so you need a pan that is large enough for the mixture to boil freely without boiling over (this is another reason you should not double your recipe).
Be Patient, But Work Quickly
Making pralines is an emotional process, at best. Even if it is not in your nature, you must be patient while the sugar melts and boils into a velvety smooth syrup. Then you must quickly switch gears and spoon the pralines out onto the prepared surface. Don't even think about doing laundry, checking emails, or anything else. Making pralines demands your complete attention.
One Last Trick
Sugary substances tend to stick to the spoon. For easy (and quick) scooping, spray your spoon with cooking spray. The pralines slide right off the spoon onto the surface.