I first tasted a praline when I was about six or seven years old. It was Christmas morning and my father had just unwrapped a long flat box given to him by my grandmother. Inside, nestled in wax paper, were pralines. My Dad seemed disproportionately thrilled and so of course my sister and I were immediately curious.
Us: What's that, Daddy?
Dad: These are mine.
Us: But what are they?
Grandmother: Those are pralines, girls. Would you like a taste?
And so, because he could hardly say no, he carefully broke the smallest praline in half and handed each of us a piece. We loved them of course, though we did not get so much as another crumb that Christmas. It seemed that my Dad had a real passion for them and nobody but my grandmother ever made them-- and then only for special occasions and only as long as she had local pecans stored away.
After we moved away from California my grandmother would mail a box of pralines to my Dad each Christmas until she got too infirm to keep it up. He remained pretty stingy about sharing them, so naturally I learned to make them myself once I was out on my own, and I sometimes make a batch for my Dad if I happen to be visiting him over the Christmas holidays. In fact the last time I made a batch for him he still didn't want to share and I had to promise to make another batch before leaving, just so that my own children could have a taste. The man likes his pralines. I suggested to my mother that she make them for him from time to time, but she says she never got the hang of it and never will. (This is clearly nonsense, as she is an excellent cook, but I'm sure she has her reasons.)
American Pralines are a very different animal from those in other countries. Originally invented in 17th century France, pralines were whole almonds individually coated in caramelized sugar. The powder made by grinding up the sugar-coated nuts is called pralin or praliné in French, and is an ingredient in many cakes and pastries. The praline commonly associated with the American South is made with pecans and sugar syrup, formed into a patty.
Pralines are tricky. Like bread baking, it varies, depending on the day, the weather, the state of your ingredients, and how the stars are aligned. The most important things to learn are when to remove them from the heat, and when to stop beating them and start spooning onto the waxed paper. You have to beat the hot sugar mixture to just the right stage before spooning them out. Too little and they don't set up at all, remaining sticky. Too much and they start to set and crystallize before you can get them spooned out, forming lumpy globs. Worse, they can over-crystallize, resulting in a grainy, dry mess of crumbs. Unfortunately, as with bread baking, experience and trial and error are really the only way to develop a "feel" for the timing. When you do get it right you end up with perfect flat round disks studded with pecans.
Some recipes call for a little cane or corn syrup to stabilize and prevent over-crystallization, and some even call for cream, but I make them like my grandmother did, with a base of buttermilk, baking soda, and sugar heated to the soft boil stage and then beaten with a little butter, vanilla and pecans. Perfectly flat or shaped like a glob, they taste wonderful, and I'm not too picky about appearances.
3 Cups sugar
1 Cup buttermilk
1 tsp soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 stick real butter
2 cups pecan halves or pieces
Heat the sugar, buttermilk and soda on low until the sugar is dissolved. Bring the heat up to a rolling boil and cook to the soft ball stage (236 degrees), stirring occasionally and watching to make sure it doesn't boil over. The mixture will darken as it cooks. Once you get to the soft ball stage, remove the mixture from the heat and add the vanilla, butter and pecans. Beat by hand until it begins to lose it's gloss (this does not take long). Drop spoonfuls onto waxed or parchment paper. Let cool.
For those of you inexperienced with candy-making here are some tips:
1) Get yourself a good clip-on candy thermometer, and make sure you have a pot with a clip-friendly rim before you start.
2) Use a deep pot, as the sugar mixture will bubble up quite high. It will also toss molten drops of candy upwards, so make sure you have a long wooden spoon.
3) Run a stick of butter around the inside of the pot about four inches above the bottom to create a 2-inch wide, light “ring” of butter. This will help keep the mixture from climbing too high, as well as to help prevent the formation of crystals on the side of the pan during boiling (this is a new trick I learned from the excellent Fine Art of Confectionary).
4) Have the vanilla, butter and pecans pre-measured and ready, as well as sheets of waxed paper laid out. Make sure the surface you are working with won't be damaged by the high heat of the pralines.
5) By the time the mixture loses its shine,signaling that it is time to drop spoonfuls onto the waxed paper, it often starts hardening too fast to drop correctly. You can stir in about 1 - 2 tablespoons of warm water to thin the mixture. Don't add too much - just enough to make the spoonfuls drop and settle in a "puddle". Ideally, you don't want them to look like chunks of rocks. Personally I hardly ever do this. But if you're a perfectionist it does work.
6) Don't be tempted to lick that spoon! It's HOT!
7) Some people believe that you should never make pralines on a rainy day because the humidity will prevent them from setting. I sort of believe this myself, as my only failures have been on rainy or high humidity days. On the other hand I have also made them successfully on a rainy day. So who knows. Still, I'm always happier if the sun is shining and the humidity level is low.
8) If your pralines don't set and remain sticky, fear not. You can always reheat the mixture gently and then fill some chocolate cake layers with it for a really decadent treat. Just pour it over each layer, building upward and making sure you have enough for the top. Not the prettiest cake in the world, but possibly the tastiest!