Recipe: Pecan Pralines
Few confections are so readily identified with the South as pralines–irresistible nuggets made of caramel and pecans. Different Southern cooks swear by a variety of recipes with or without brown sugar or baking soda; with evaporated milk, buttermilk, or half-and-half; and dropped large or small. We tasted them all before determining our favorite recipe, a combination of white and brown sugars and evaporated milk.
History of the Pralines Recipe
This delectable Louisiana brittle candy dates back to 1750. Originally pralines were made with almonds–the preferred nut of the French–and was considered an aid to digestion at the end of the meal. However, the Creoles quickly found a better alternative in the abundant pecan and replaced the white sugar with brown. Today it's considered one of the paramount sweets in the South. In New Orleans, it used to be a tradition for young women to make pralines before going to a ball and then enjoy them with friends (and beaux) at their homes afterward.
Tricks for Perfect Pralines
Pralines aren't difficult to make, but they can be tricky. The requirements are plenty of stirring, patience, and careful attention. Two big questions usually come up during preparation: when to remove the candy mixture from the heat and when to stop beating and start spooning. (You're allowed to enlist an extra set of hands at this stage.)
If the mixture gets too hot, the candy will be dry and crumbly. If it isn't cooked long enough, the mixture will be runny and sticky.
One trick we learned after making several batches in our Test Kitchen is to remove it from the heat at about 232°. The mixture will continue to climb to the required temperature (236°). A candy thermometer gives the best temperature reading and takes out most of the guesswork. We like to use two thermometers for accuracy.
Beat the mixture with a wooden spoon just until it begins to thicken. You'll feel the mixture become heavier, and its color will become lighter. Often the last few pralines that you spoon will be thicker and less perfectly shaped that the first, but they'll still be just as good. The candy tastes the best if eaten within a day or two; pralines become sugary and gritty with age. Be sure to store them in an airtight container (a metal tin works well).
New Praline Dessert Recipe Ideas
If your pralines don't turn out right the first time, don't despair. Simply create a new dessert. Crumble and fold them into softened vanilla ice cream. Or, if they're too soft, scrap up the mixture, chill it, and roll it into 1-inch balls. Then dip the balls into melted chocolate to make truffles. If the candy mixture hardens in the pot, break it into pieces and sprinkle it over hot apple pie, cheesecake, or ice cream. Practice helps. And believe us, these Southern delicacies are well worth the effort.