Whether they are packaged in pretty gift boxes or served at the end of a festive evening with tea or coffee, pralines are a Christmas tradition in many homes throughout the South. These beloved sweets, which are associated with both the city Creoles of New Orleans and Cajuns in the country, vividly illustrate how black cooks turned unwanted leftovers into financial advantage.Most people know about the ways yesterday’s black cooks perfected survival cooking, teaching children to pull thick molasses syrup until it turned into taffy at Christmastime. We hear less, though, about black culinary professionals like the “pralinieres” who refined their skills on the job, revealing the art of imaginative cooking that is spurred when resources are plentiful. In my new book, Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking, I restore dignity to the entrepreneurial and hospitable spirits of Creole pralinieres and so many more of this country’s well-trained cooks while memorializing their recipes.Pralines are just one of the stunning desserts Crescent City residents have produced for centuries, Nathaniel Burton explained in Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets, a collection of recipes and reminiscences he composed with Rudy Lombard. Through personal profiles, the New Orleans culinary elite looked back through the years at their work in professional kitchens in Pullman train cars, merchant marine galleys, cooking schools, restaurants, hotels, and fine private homes. Their creative improvisation and style were perfected in “almost complete anonymity and frequently in a hostile environment,” the authors wrote, but “they are proud heirs to the rich legacy of Creole cuisine they have inherited from Black professional cooks.”Mirroring a treat once called “hard times candy” or “groundnut cakes,” pralines originally were made with molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) and then evolved to a boiled-sugar-syrup base when this commodity was no longer a luxury. The process for making pralines was detailed this way in Soul and Spice: African Cooking in the Americas: “The sugar syrup was heated until dark and caramelized and mixed with peanuts, pecans, benne (sesame) seeds, or sometimes cornflakes. A little butter might be added to make a creamy praline. The nutty confections were poured out onto corn husks to set up.”Women sold them door-to-door in public areas of the city, throughout the African diaspora in the New World, Jessica B. Harris explained in The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking. “The legacy of the slave saleswomen still lives on in Brazil’s baianas de tabuleiro, in the sweets sellers of the Caribbean, and in the pralinieres of New Orleans.”For me, making these sweet and creamy treats to share with friends and family during the holidays is a hospitality tradition that preserves the timeless wisdom of my ancestors, a forgotten culinary class.This is my adaptation of the pecan candy in Cleora’s Kitchens: The Memoir of a Cook & Eight Decades of Great American Food. I swapped in molasses for her dark corn syrup and heavy cream for the milk, resulting in pralines that are thick and chewy.
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Don’t fret if you find small white specks in your fresh pralines. Candy made with molasses sometimes has natural imperfections. If you choose to use corn syrup, it will yield a smoother, unblemished candy like what we’ve grown accustomed to buying in stores.