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Defining the American Praline
The American Praline is defined as a smooth, sweet substance made by boiling nuts in sugar and grinding the mixture. Used especially as a filling for chocolates. It can also be defined as a crisp, or semi-crisp candy typically consisting of butter, brown sugar, and pecans. Certainly a delicious treat either way.
The praline was originally inspired in France by the cook Marshal du Plessis-Praslin (1598–1675), with the word praline deriving from his name Praslin. Early pralines were whole almonds individually coated in caramelized sugar, as opposed to dark nougat, where a sheet of caramelized sugar covers many nuts. European chefs used the local nuts of France. Specifically, almonds and hazelnuts.
Historical Praline Recipes of the South
Purists will say that praline is simply sugar and pecans. However, it seems that every cook in the South had their own version of this remarkable candy. One recipe comes from 1903, where Celestine Eustis’s book on Creole cooking calls for two cups of brown sugar, half a cup of water, and a cup of pecans.
Diane Spivey covered the history of American pralines while writing about the global migration of African cuisine. She sings the praise of a much more complicated praline. Her version includes butter, cream, white sugar, brown sugar, chocolate chips, vanilla, and of course, pecans.
The late Jamie Shannon says in his book Commander’s Kitchen, “Walk through the French Quarter . . . and every so often you’ll pass a doorway from which wafts the aroma of burnt sugar or molasses- not a bitter smell, but a sweet, intoxicating one. It can mean only one thing…pralines.” Jamie cautions us that the word is PRAW-lens, and in his view, they shouldn’t be chewy or made with chocolate. His recipe consists of a cup of sugar, a cup of heavy cream, a cup of pecans, and a little orange zest.
Food historian, John Edge, favors a recipe with a helping of corn syrup. In Austin Texas, the famous Lammes Candy Company makes chewy pralines with caramel, using a 108-year-old recipe. Another delicious version comes from our friend Nancy McAfee, who got it from her husband’s Texas grandmother. She combines Karo corn syrup, a little salt, baking soda, butter, rum, and bourbon, along with sugar and nuts.
Defining The American Praline More Broadly
In the old Picayune cookbook, writers gathered the traditional Creole recipes at the beginning of the last century. They defined the praline more broadly as, “a distinctive Creole sugar cake made of coconut and sugar or pecans and sugar.” Sometimes these coconut pralines would be given a rose color using red food coloring like cochineal (made of dried insects) or carmine.
Old-time pralines were made with either white sugar and shredded coconut or brown sugar and pecans, but both were said to be equally delicious. Confectioners sometimes used almonds or peanuts instead of pecans taking an even different approach. Another version of the cookbook called La Colle uses molasses and pecans to make a praline.
Many of us in America have come to know and love what is now the soft, creamy, fudge-like version of the praline. But history reminds us that there is a lot more where that came from, and we’re always ready to sample other delicious recipes!