I had my first taste of southern praline this time last year at Charleston's River Street Sweets. The rich buttery sweetness of cooked sugar and toasted pecan left a big impression on me. When it was time to plan for my annual holiday gifting menu, praline was one of the first items on my list. I was ready to take on the challenge of confectionery.
Over the last few months, I've become a lot more confident working with sugar. The high heat and risk of burn no longer freak me out. What I lack though was experience. As much as clear and concise recipes guide me through my learning, some things are more intangible than what the written word can describe. Yesterday, I made a classic pecan Praline from Simply Recipes and Bacon Pecan Praline from Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite. Both candies were absolutely delicious in their own way (hello? Bacon and Pecan!!) but the cooking was nerve wrecking for this novice candymaker. Cooking the sugar until it hit 235F was the easy part with assistance of digital thermometer. What I did not grasp at first was the significance for beating the pecans into the cooked sugar until the mixture turn thick and creamy. In the world of confectionary, 235F registers in one of the lower brackets in the transformation of physical properties. As you bring the temperature higher, the sugar hardens, becomes brittle, and eventually burn. At 235F, it should remain pretty soft once cooled. Here is where it lost me. As I recall, the pralines I enjoyed in Charleston were kinda crumbly in texture, far from soft and chewy. My first attempt at making the Bacon Pecan Praline left me with puddles of soft chewy caramel coated pecans that never set. I was initially disappointed from wasting a batch of expensive ingredients but my curiosity took over. When cooking sugar, we often go to great lengths to avoid crystalization because everything seizes up when that happens and we may as well start over again. It suddenly dawned on me that beating the pecans into the cooked sugar is to encourage crystalization to transform chewy to crumbly.
I gathered all the sweet bacony puddles into a glass bowl and set to work. I warmed it over a bain marie so it returned to workable consistency. Then came the hard physical work of beating and beating until I noticed crystals forming on the side of the bowl. My arm may have fallen off when I was done but I don't remember anymore. I reportioned the pralines and anxiously waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the candies set as expected and they are oh so wonderfully delicious! If you haven't experience bacon in a sweet application before (it's been so popular in the last few years), this is definitely a great way to start. I can eat this for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner...
This is part of my holiday gift 2010 series. See what other goodies I came up with this year!