It was 95° in my apartment and not a day to be anywhere near the kitchen. But my sweet tooth, well, it had other plans. Luckily, our Southern neighbors are used to facing such demands in the hottest and stickiest of weathers, which is why they had the good sense to invent the praline.
You can call the praline a cookie, because it's shaped like one, but it's rightfully a type of candy. You make them entirely on the stove top by boiling a mixture of chopped pecans, sugars (two kinds!), butter, milk, and vanilla until it becomes creamy and caramelized. But if the sight of a candy thermometer makes your head hurt, don't worry. These cookies (er...candies) are different.
Counter-intuitively for those of us who do much candy-making, the key to a good batch of pralines is stirring the pot constantly. This is the one time when that annoying habit sugar has of crystallizing at the least provocation is actually something that you want. You stir as the sugar syrup comes up to a boil, stir while it's boiling, and keep stirring as it cools down into something manageable.
The moment when you feel the syrup turn grainy with sugar crystals, that's when you start dropping them onto your parchment paper like it's going out of style. Don't worry about being neat or forming perfectly uniform candies; just scoop, drop, and let them form whatever shape they may. (Incidentally the praline pros down in Louisiana call the accidental drippings between scoops "praline turds." Poetic, right?!)
I took a class in making pralines at The New Orleans School of Cooking during my trip to New Orleans. They're the perfect warm-weather treat because they require minimal effort, minimal time in front of a hot stove, and no baking. Plus they're ready in about fifteen minutes. And trust me, you want to try them while they're still warm. They practically dissolve on your tongue and that, right there, is heaven.
Adapted from The New Orleans School of Cooking
Makes 20-50 pralines, depending on how large or small you drop them
1 1/2 cups (12 oz) granulated white sugar
3/4 cup (6 oz) light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup (4 oz) milk - whole is preferred but 2% is fine
6 tablespoons (3 oz) salted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup (12 oz) pecans - I like them roughly chopped, but you can leave them whole or chop them more finely. You can also toast the pecans, if desired.
Before starting to cook, lay out a piece of parchment, aluminum foil, or a silpat for the pralines. Set a second spoon nearby in case you need to scrape the candy off the first spoon.
Combine all the ingredients in a medium sauce pan, at least 4 quarts. Do not use a smaller pan as the syrup will bubble up during cooking. It's also harder to stir in a smaller pan.
Cook the syrup over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When it comes to a boil, start stirring constantly. Let it boil for about 3 minutes, until the syrup registers 238°f - 240°F on a candy thermometer.
Remove the pan from heat immediately and keep stirring. Stir, stir, stir! It will become creamy, cloudy, and start to thicken. When you feel it starting to get grainy, the pralines are ready. You can also hear it if you listen closely; the crystals will make a scraping noise against the side of the pan.
Drop spoonfuls of the praline syrup onto your waiting parchment. Work quickly, as the syrup starts to set as it gets cool. Let the pralines cool and harden for at least ten minutes before eating. They will keep in an airtight container for several days, but they're at their very best within the first 24 hours of making them!
One last thing: don't forget the pan scrapings! Whatever is left in the pan is the cook's treat. Scrape those up and eat them with a spoon.
• Chocolate Pralines - Add 1/2 cup of chocolate with all the ingredients.
• Peanut Butter Pralines - Add 1/3 cup of peanut butter in the last 30 seconds of boiling the syrup.
• Nut-Free Pralines - Add 1 1/2 cups puffed rice cereal right before you start dropping the candies.
(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip to New Orleans sponsored by the Louisiana Seafood Board. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)
(Images: Emma Christensen)