Feb 11, 2009

You Say Pray-lean, I Say Praw-Lean

I have to admit the “pray-lean” pronunciation grates on me almost as much as “pee-can” does. I once heard a good friend and mentor tell someone, “A pee-can is something your grandmaw kept by her bed at night.” Ah, Cajuns. Not afraid to tell it like it is. To us, it’s “praw-lean” and “puh-cawn."

Puh-cawns...God, I love ‘em! There was a huge, old pecan tree in the yard behind the house I grew up in. After school, my brothers and I would go out to play and in the fall, we’d always end up sitting in the back of the yard “pickin’ puh-cawns.” We had an old tricycle that was too small for us, an old red wagon, and an old kid-sized folding chair...supposed to be white, but wearing streaks of rust from always being left out in the rain. There was an orange and red carousel painted on the back of it. Funny how clearly I can remember that chair...probably something my grandpa picked up out of someone’s trash pile (we called my grandpa “Sandford.”). Anyway, we’d place the tricycle, wagon, and the folding chair in a crude circle under the pecan branches that hung high overhead. We’d sit there in a way that is common around here...an informal group just sittin’, talkin’, eatin’ together, our dog, Jackson, sprawled out on the ground next to us. We’d stuff ourselves with so many pecans, when my mom called us in to eat supper we were sometimes sickened by the thought.

Later, in college, I ate pecans for breakfast. I walked to campus through an older neighborhood bordering ULL’s (then USL's) campus. Being an older neighborhood meant mature pecan trees. On my way to class in the mornings, I foraged along the streets and yards for my breakfast. My favorite thing to make with pecans is pecan pie. But my husband is partial to pralines.

Pralines were introduced to Louisiana (most likely New Orleans) by French settlers. The French version is typically made with almonds. Pralines in New Orleans, and the rest of Louisiana, utilize a native nut—the pecan, which, horticulturally speaking, is not a nut at all. Another version of pralines you might find in Louisiana is Praline au Benne, or pralines with sesame seeds. The recipe below comes from a friend, colleague, and all-around character I met in Texas, although he is a South Louisiana native—having grown up South of New Orleans.

Every recipe he ever gave me he claimed was “the best.” While that wasn’t always what I discovered, it definitely is the case when it comes to his pralines. His challenge, typed up at the end of the recipe he gave to me, was this: “I have never known anyone to get these pralines to turn out right the first or second time, so try until you get it. They are worth it.” So he was doubly right ...this is the best praline I’ve had and my husband and I did not get them right the first time. Since this is tricky and requires specific temperatures here are a few tips:

* read the recipe several times so you know what’s up ahead

* have a partner...one person can caramelize the sugar while the other works on boiling more sugar with evaporated milk...especially if you’ve never made candy.

* use a candy thermometer. No debate. If you don’t and your pralines don’t set up right, don’t come back and blame me!

* put down a layer of newspaper or cardboard so the hot praline mixture doesn’t burn your counter top. If you don’t and end up with scorched counters, don’t come back and blame me!

* more important here than for any other recipe I’ve covered...get your mise en place ready. Things will start unbearably slow, and then catch you off guard because it’ll move so fast.

* my friend suggested a clean-up hint that definitely works “do not try to scrub the sugar off the spoons and pots, soak them in water for 2 hours and all the sugar will simply wash off.”

Creamy Louisiana Pralines
from Ms. enPlace by way of my friend, GRM

2 to 2 ½ cups of coarsely chopped pecans
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups granulated sugar

1 small 5 oz can Pet milk (evaporated milk)
2 tbsp real butter
1 tbsp vanilla

Before starting, cover your counter with cardboard or thick layers of newspaper. Cover that with pieces of aluminum foil. Sprinkle foil lightly with salt.

Roast chopped pecans at 240 F so they will be hot when they go into the mixture. Should take about 15-20 minutes, but don’t depend on time. Depend on your sense of smell.

Melt 1 cup sugar in a large, smooth-bottom cast iron (or other heavy) skillet. Set the heat around low and keep the sugar moving with a flat edge of a spatula. This keeps the sugar from burning. This is a slow process; be patient.

Just before the sugar in the skillet is totally melted, boil 2 cups of sugar and the small can of evaporated milk on high heat in a 3 qt pot.

When the mixture is boiling strong and when the sugar in the cast iron pot has completely melted, pour the sugar-milk mixture into the melted sugar. Quickly stir the two mixtures until they become one; the color will be light brown.

The temperature can be checked here. It should be 235-240 degrees F. Do not overcook or undercook or the pralines will not set properly.

Cut the heat off and add 2 tablespoons of butter and stir until butter is melted. Add vanilla and stir. The mixture will boil.

Add the pecans from the oven. They should be hot so they don’t bring down the temperature of your sugar mixture. Stir the mixture until it starts to thicken and streak. If you take too long, the mixture will set in your pot; work quickly from here on out.

Very fast, with two spoons, dip and drop the pralines on aluminum foil which has a very light coating of salt. This mixture is very hot. Be careful. After 10 minutes, the pralines should be set and ready to eat. They are best when still warm.

It is especially important for this recipe that you have everything ready before you beign. Things will start to move fast.

Get your counter ready too. Once the praline mixture is done, there isn't any time for prep...unless you want one giant praline stuck to the bottom of your pan. Cover your counter with thick layers of newspaper or cardboard. Cover that with foil. Sprinkle the foil with salt. The salt does two things. It adds a great salty-sweet quality and it helps in removing the pralines from the foil.

Roast your pecans. Yeah, it's an extra step, but it's worth it. Roasted nuts have much more flavor than unroasted since heat brings out flavorful oils. Here's a challenge, try to time things so that the pecans are still hot when they go into the sugar mixture.

Melt 1 cup of granulated sugar. Notice the recipe calls for granulated sugar twice. The remaining 2 cups will be used in a bit. Melting, or more accurately, caramelizing the sugar will take time. It reminds me of making roux. Best to use a cast iron or other heavy pot...helps with all the stirring, and stirring you will definitely be doing, it takes time, the mixture will change from light (white) to dark, and just when you think you can sneak off for a second...ha! things start to really happen.

This is ready to be added to the caramelized sugar...but remember the caramelized sugar decides when it's time.
Stir the two mixtures together. Don't goof around, no!
Turn off the heat if you've reached the right temp. Stir in the butter. Add in the vanilla, which will cause the mixture to boil and that will be totally normal.
Add in the pecans and your praline mixture will look like this.
Using two spoons, drop spoonfuls of the praline mixture onto the salted foil. Be careful, this stuff is hot (hmm...another thing in common with roux).
Go ahead and have a bite.

Ahh...my favorite part. Picking off all the left-behind bits from the foil.


  1. Anonymous2/12/2009

    Hi again, this is Stephanie from Lafayette again... I had the questions about the pots... well wanted to give you an update. I was able to get a small magnalite roaster and 5 qt pot off of ebay for a fair price. I'm excited now. I just wanted to tell you thanks for the advice. Also, I absolutely agree with you on the pronunciations of pecan and praline. It grates on my last nerve when a chef or person (even on food network) says pecan wrong! Keep up the great blog and Happy Mardi Gras to you!

  2. Happy Mardi Gras to you too! I can't wait!

    There is a particular chef on Food Network who says pecan "wrong" and I cringe every time.

    That's great about your pots! I've drooled over those roasters.


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