Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fat Tuesday? Eat, Drink and Be Merry For Tomorrow You Must Fast! Sugary Pralines Are A New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition

Today, the day before Ash Wednesday, is known as 'Fat Tuesday', 'Shrove' Tuesday or in French: Mardi Gras. It's signifies the last night of eating rich foods before Lenten fasting begins. 

Bearing that in mind, I went on a search for a 'rich' food item that I could make preferably something with a 'Louisiana' feel to honor the final day of Mardi Gras. Gumbo showed up on an Internet search but it seemed way too complicated for my schedule today. Another search revealed the decadent praline, a southern confection that I've had the (mis)fortune of growing to love. Lots of people in the office where I worked had New Orleans roots and after visiting home, they would return with a box or two of the sugary treat. 

A couple of years ago, we vacationed in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. We took a day trip to Savannah, Georgia and walked the Savannah 'Riverfront' where there were any number of shops making fresh praline candies, a happy discovery for me and my family.

I read the recipes and decided that this was the best way to celebrate Fat Tuesday (each piece registers about 270 calories). I tried two different kinds: one made on the stove top, the other in a microwave and got two very different results. Both were delicious, not exactly like the 'store bought' varieties, but good enough for a proper celebration.

There are several versions of the history of the pecan praline in the southern United States but most agree that it got its name from a French diplomat from the early 17th century whose name and title was C├ęsar, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin. His personal chef is thought to be the creator of the candy. The original praline was a sweet confection made of almonds and some sort of creamy sugary caramelized coating. The praline came to the United States from France courtesy of the Ursuline nuns, arriving in New Orleans in 1727. The nuns, in charge of instructing young girls to be future upstanding members of society (and to marry well!) taught them the art of praline making. As the young women married and settled throughout New Orleans and southern Louisiana, their culinary skills became the foundations of the famous creole cuisine we know today.

Pralines were one of the more popular recipes but almonds being in short supply were substituted with the native Louisiana pecan and so the modern pecan praline was born. Soon the art of making praline candy was a small but significant industry for the city of new Orleans.


Southern Praline Candy
This recipe tastes like the real thing!


Ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans


Directions:

  • Butter sides of a heavy saucepan (2-quart size). Add sugars, half-and-half, and salt to saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved. Raise heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Reduce heat and continue cooking to soft ball stage*, about 234° on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.
  • Add butter and vanilla, but do not stir. Cool for 5 minutes; stir in nuts. Beat with wooden spoon until candy is no longer glossy and is thickened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Quickly spoon candy onto buttered baking sheets or waxed paper. If mixture becomes to thick to drop from a spoon, add a little hot water, no more than half a teaspoon at a time. Makes about 36 pralines. I made mini-versions but they look a while to harden. 

*To Test for Soft Ball Stage
A small amount of syrup dropped into chilled water forms a ball, but flattens when picked up with fingers (234° to 240°).


Microwaved Praline Candy
Ingredients
1 pound light brown sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups chopped toasted pecans (i used a mix of pecans and walnuts)






Directions

  • In a deep, microwave-safe bowl, mix together brown sugar, whipping cream, and corn syrup. Microwave on High for 13 minutes. (mine was over-bubbly and might have been better microwaved a shorter time) 
  • Mix in butter until well blended. Then stir, stir, and stir until mixture begins to cool and get creamy. Stir in chopped nuts. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto waxed paper to cool. This recipe hardened much faster than the stovetop version and resembled 'turtle-like' clusters. I thought the taste was similiar to a Heath Bar.

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