Mardi Gras Must-Haves: Pralines & King Cake

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pralines and King Cake. Two of my top ten foods ever. They are both perfection in their own right.

King Cake isn't easy to make, and frankly given its history and ease of internet, I prefer to just order mine straight from the French Quarter. I used an amazing bakery called King King Cakes. Yes, that's two "kings" because they are that good. A wonderful online resource, they are super professional, put out an amazing product and will make any Mardi Gras celebration (or king cake fix) special and authentic. They have an assortment of king cakes that you can order, in addition to Cafe du Monde coffee, beignet mix, and even masks and beads for your Mardi Gras celebration. Definitely tab this website on your favorites and order today! They'll ship directly to your door in special packaging. Our cakes (ordered 2) came perfectly fresh and with the appropriate decorations (icing and sugars).

The pralines, however, I made myself.

Pralines (pronounced "praw-lins") is actually a very old French confection dating back to 17th century France! Yes, despite their snobbery, we can credit The Frogs for yet another culinary masterpiece. Praline references anything with caramel: nuts, dried fruits, candies. But the most commonly used ingredient is the nut. In America, it's the pecan. When French settlers moved into Louisiana they found both sugar cane and pecan trees aplenty, so the pecan praline was born.

The praline is named after the French confectionist Marshal du Plessis-Praslin. Praslin (pronounced in French "praw-lan") is where our American confection gets its pronunciation. Stories vary, but the most commonly held one is that Praslin asked his personal chef to come up with an irresistible treat for him to give to the women he was courting. So these treats, originally made with almonds, were wrapped in a parcel with his initial on it, hence naming it after Praslin.

Whatever the genesis, they're amazing and you'll be hooked too. My favorite recipe for pralines is Emeril Lagasse's. It's easy, authentic, and all you need is a candy thermometer to make the magic happen. Make a few batches today!

Creamy Pecan Pralines

1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 Tbsp unsalted butter (that's 1/2 a stick)
2 Tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
1.5 cups chopped pecans

Mix light brown sugar, granulated sugar, heavy cream, butter, water and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until sugar dissolves. Stir in pecans and cook over medium heat until mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 238 to 240 degrees F on a candy thermometer. If you spoon a drop of boiling syrup into a cup of ice water, it will form a soft ball that flattens easily between your fingers.

Remove pan from heat and stir rapidly until mixture thickens. Drop pralines by the spoonfuls, 1-inch apart onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Let cool completely until firm. Store in an airtight container.

Here are some pictures I took while making my pralines to help you if you've never made candy before.

Here the mixture is bubbling and getting to "soft ball" stage. This is right before I pulled the mixture from the heat. Notice the gorgeous deep caramel color:

You'll be tempted to stir with a spoon and even take a taste. DON'T DO IT! On both accounts! First, by stirring you'll actually disrupt the cooking process and then you'll ruin your pralines. Second, boiling sugar is actually hotter than boiling water, so if you want to permanently scald your tongue and mouth, then go ahead and take that taste. I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait until they're all set and cooled. If I can do it, you can do it.

When I first started making candy (not that I do it all the time, but occasionally I'll do a praline or caramel or whatever), I was completely confused about the whole candy thermometer. So I thought I'd share my thoughts quickly on that here.

Here's a picture of my fancy one from Williams-Sonoma:

I like it because it clips very easily to the side of the pan and easily adjusts with height, even while you're cooking. Mine is digital and can be programmed. So since I knew I needed this to be at "soft ball" stage, I programmed it to beep when it gets to that point, and that way I could go ahead and do other things while it cooked and not have to worry about constantly watching it.

You don't need anything this fancy; a regular candy thermometer will certainly get the job done. But keep in mind that one you'll need to watch like a hawk because when working with candy, once it gets past its desired temperature, it's going to permanently change into something else and you'll need to start from scratch.

My thermometer cost $25 at Williams-Sonoma. And like all candy thermometers, they can be used for stove-top deep frying as well.

Here's a picture of the mixture after I beat it for 3 minutes. Notice how the caramel has thickened. The purpose of beating the mixture after you take it off the heat is twofold: (1) you're beating air into it so the air is going to cool the mixture down immediately and (2) the air actually has mass, so it's going to add volume to your mixture and thus make it thicker. Didn't think I knew about science too, did ya? ;)

I've seen recipes that say you could use a handheld mixer fitted with the beater attachments to achieve this same result, and that's fine. For me, I don't like to get dishes dirty unnecessarily, and I prefer to use my favorite machines -- my arms and hands -- to get the job done.

Once you've beaten your mixture, then go ahead and spoon it out. You must use parchment or wax paper! Do NOT place these on a plate or on a baking sheet or worse, a cutting board. They will stick to it immediately and break when you try to remove them.

You can certainly use a baking sheet or cutting board underneath the paper (as I did above), but you must have that paper down so they can set nicely and be easily removed.

Once you've made your pralines, you can make them as little or large as you like. Don't worry about gooey caramel oozing out the sides of the pecans - the pecans will likely cluster in the middle of each scoop as they set up. That's fine. If it really bugs you, gently use a fork to move out your pecans to the sides. Depending on how large you make them, this recipe will give you around 12 pralines. But my advice is to make another batch because these go so fast at parties. I count 2 per person for a portion! And you'll want some leftovers.

Pralines can be made up to 3 days in advance. More than that and they start to get a little soft. You want them to have that fresh, delicate crisp when you bite into them and the pecans. You can use different nuts if you like, but note that it won't be a traditional New Orleans style praline.

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