Thursday, October 2, 2014

Family Tree of the Southern Pecan Praline (and recipes too)

Did you know that the Pecan Praline has a family tree? And that you can determine your Praline recipe’s age and place or origin by the ingredients it contains? Who would have thought!

While searching for a new praline recipe I stumbled across a blog post by Elaine Wherry entitled Praline Etymology. Hummm, had to look that one up… Etymology is the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. And there is even an Online Etymology Dictionary. If you plugin Praline you get this:

Elaine is a master sleuth when it comes to recipe etymology, and she says that you can tell a recipes’ age and area of origin based on the ingredients it contains. How cool is that? So in honor of Elaine I decided to do a little praline sleuthing of my own and come up with:

The Family Tree of the Southern Pecan Praline

Ta da, here it is  (sorry it is all text, I'll make some cool graphics soon)...

At the top of the Praline Family Tree is a sugary, almond treat that the cook/chef of duPlessis-Praslin’s invented way back in the early 1700s. There are conflicting reports on which duPlessis-Praslin is actually linked to the pralines. Some accounts list the praline duPlessis-Prasline as Marshal (his rank not his first name) duPlessis-Praslin, a French soldier and diplomat, and others list him as Cesar duc de Choiseul, comet duPlessis-Praslin a French diplomat and sugar industrialist. But all accounts agree that the actual creator of the treat was Clement Lassagne, duPlessis-Praslin’s personal chef.

But how (and why) did Clement Lassagne invent the praline? And why are they called pralines and not lassagines? One of the more colorful legends tells of the lascivious Cesar, duc de Choiseul, comet duPlessis-Praslin, who asked his personal chef, Clement Lassagne, to come up with an irresistible treat that he could present to women he wanted to court. Lassagne came up with almonds dipped in a creamy, caramelized sugar coating. Soon duPlessis-Praslin was putting the sugary nuts into little parcels emblazoned with his name and handing them out to women around town. People began calling the sweet treats after duPlessis-Praslin, or simply praslin (pronounced prah-leen with a long aaah sound). There is also an account that tells of Lassagne leaving duPlessis-Praslin’s employ, and opened a confectioner’s shop called Masion de la Prasline (which still exists today in Montargis, France, 110 km south of Paris).

The praslin craze soon spread through Europe, and eventually made its way to North America. Again there are several differing opinions on how this migration happened, but the one I like best involves the Ursuline Nuns of New Orleans. In this version the praslin made its way to Louisiana via the Ursuline Nuns who, in turn, were in charge of the Casket Girls that were conveyed to New Orleans during the early 1700s. The Bishop of Quebec had the duty of sending to New Orleans young women who were known to be good and virtuous. As proof of their respectability, the bishop gave each girl a casket to hold her possessions (hence the nick-name of Casket Girls). When the girls arrived in New Orleans that were met by the Ursuline Nuns who housed and trained the girls until appropriate marriages were arranged. At the Ursuline Convent, the nuns educated the girls in both scholastic and domestic topics, including the art of praline making. (Note: Almonds were in short supply in French New Orleans, so the almond was swapped out for the indigenous pecans.) As the Casket Girls completed their training and married their eager beaus, the knowledge of praline making went with them.

Soon pecan pralines were appearing all across South Louisiana. In New Orleans a good praline was soon a marketable commodity, and enterprising Slaves and Free Women of Color (known as Pralinieres) began selling their sugary-sweet confection on the streets of the French Quarter. Sailors and merchants visiting the thriving port city of New Orleans were soon carrying the tales of the candy back to their far-flung homes where their wives, mothers and sisters adapted the recipe to their local ingredients.

During the late 1700’s early 1800’s the traditional praline ingredients were water, sugar, and pecans. Brown or raw sugar was abundant in South Louisiana but typically the white refined product was available in the Northeast and Midwest. So the first clue to the origin of your recipe is the type of sugar used. If your favorite praline recipe has brown sugar it probably hails from the south. If it contains just white sugar it is probably a Northeast or Midwest version.

It also should be noted that the pralines sold on the streets of New Orleans’ pralines probably didn’t include cream. I discovered a recipe published in 1879 by the Godchaux Sugar Refinery (located in Reserve, Louisiana) titled Old-Fashioned Pecan Pralines. No milk or cream is used in this recipe, just water. (see Godchaux’s Old-Fashioned Pecan Pralines in the recipe section.)

In the 1850’s Baking Soda came into vogue, and cooks in the Northeast and Midwest found that if baking soda was added to the white sugar version of the praline the praline would become sweeter, softer and browner. Elaine Wherry tells us that adding baking soda at the start of praline cooking cycle increases the pH level and accelerates the caramelization (the Maillard reaction) thereby creating a sweeter, browner praline. (Note: A Millard reaction also occurs to a lesser degree between milk protein and the sugar.)

Down in South Louisiana the baking soda addition didn’t catch on because the brown sugar in the pralines added enough brown color and sweetness. Rarely do you see both brown sugar and baking soda in the same praline recipe. So the key to the geographic origin of your praline recipe is the presence of brown sugar or the white sugar/baking soda combination.

Pasteurized Milk replaced water in the recipes after 1880.

Buttermilk was commercialized in the 1900’s, and it started to appear soon after in praline recipes.

Evaporated milk was popularized during the 1920 and 1930’s, and it unsurprisingly made its way into our praline’s genealogy.

So what is the age and origin of your favorite praline recipe? What is the Etymology of that yellowed, sugar-splattered praline recipe your mother or grandmother lovingly wrote down for you? Based on the list of ingredients you should be able to tell….

 So now onto the recipes…..

After all the info on pralines with baking soda I decided to give it a try. I used a recipe listed in the recipe section un-glamorously, but appropriately, entitled White-Sugar Pralines. Here the white sugar, baking soda, and heavy cream are combined. The spoon hanging on the pot is part of the Rachael Ray Cucina Collection.  Now for the most part a spoon is a spoon, but I this one is unique because you can hang it on the side of the pot.  How cool is that!

This recipe will bubble and foam so use a very large pot. Also ware long sleeves; that bubbling sugar really burns if it gets on your skin. After a few minutes on medium heat, the mixture starts to bubble.

When I make a double batch of pralines (or gumbo), I use this big, mama jama pot.  It is huge.  When not in use I store cookie cutters in it.

It is still pale but it is turning brown...

After a few minutes more the mixture gets browner. In hindsight I probably had the fire too high at this stage of the cooking process. If the fire is too high the mixture will boil too rapidly and create a “boiling scum”. This doesn’t affect the taste of the pralines, but it will give the end product a splotchy, spotted look.

Pralines need to reach the “soft-ball” stage, which is 237-239 degrees. I usually remove the pot from the heat at about 237 degrees, and allow the residual heat in the pot and sugar to raise the mixture the last few degrees. You don’t want to overcook your pralines are they will turn out hard and brittle.

Remove the pralines from the heat and add the butter, vanilla, and pecans.

Stir to incorporate and then start whipping, and keep whipping until the mixture loses it shiny gloss and starts to thicken. If the pralines were cooked to the soft ball stage the whipping process should only take a minute or two.

Quickly spoon the hot pralines onto a prepared cookie sheet and allow to cool. Everyone says to use wax paper to cover the cookie sheet, but I always use aluminum foil. Works just as well.

The final product…

The praline recipe my grandmother taught me was the “traditional” New Orleans Praline recipe. Its list of ingredients includes brown sugar, white sugar, butter, and evaporated milk. This was the only recipe I ever used because it was the recipe my dad like best. It was only after he passed away that I started experimenting with other recipes. Some used different ratios of brown to white sugar, cream, some used whole milk, some used buttermilk, but honestly I couldn't distinguish much of a difference in taste.

UNTIL, that is, I tried the Baking Soda version. Now this one does taste different. I find the Baking Soda version a little softer, a little smoother, and actually a little sweeter. I gave these baking soda pralines to a few family members and I got mixed feedback. Some of them, like me, preferred the baking soda version and other preferred the dual white sugar/brown sugar version.

Oh well, I guess there is no "perfect" praline recipe.  Each person will have their own favorite, and that favorite will never be universal.


White Sugar Pecan Pralines 


2 cups white, granulated sugar
3/4 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups pecans


1. Place sugar, milk, baking soda, and salt in a large, heavy sauce pan.
2. Using medium heat, bring to a boil. Once boiling reduce to low-medium heat.
3. Cook, stirring constantly until soft ball stage. (I remove mine at 237 degrees.)
4. Remove from heat, and add butter and vanilla. Stir to incorporate, then stir in pecans.
5. Beat the mixture until the creamy, and it just starts to thicken.
6. Drop by tablespoonsful onto waxed paper or aluminum foil.
7. Cool until set

Traditional New Orleans Pecan Pralines (Bill Hahne) 


1-1/2 cups white, granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup Half & Half
3/4 stick unsalted butter (6 tablespoons)
Pinch of salt
1-1/2 cups pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla


1. In a large, heavy saucepan combine all ingredients except pecans and vanilla
2. Bring to a boil
3. Reduce heat and stir in pecans
4. Cook until temperature reaches soft ball stage (239 degrees)
5. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla
6. Beat the mixture until it becomes cloudy
7. Spoon onto buttered waxed paper

Godchaux’s Old-Fashioned Pecan Pralines (c. 1879)

3 cups granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1-1/2 cups water
3 cups chopped or halved pecans
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. In a large, heavy pot combine sugar, brown sugar, and water; bring to a boil.
2. Add pecans. Reduce heat and gently simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
3. Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes till temperature reaches soft-ball stage (237-239 degrees)
4. Remove from heat, and add butter and vanilla.
5. Beat mixture with wooden spoon unit it sticks to the spoon.
6. Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper or foil.
7. Cool completely

More recipes to come....

Chemistry behind a praline: Tips, Tricks and Hints

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at a lot of different pecan praline recipes, and found them to be very similar. The only thing that varies is ratio between sugars and liquid (anywhere between 3:1 and 4:1), and the type of liquid. The bulk liquids can be water, or some type of milk product (whole milk, buttermilk, half & half, light cream, heavy cream, or pet milk). Honestly I’ve tried pralines with every type of milk product around, and I really don’t have a preference. Actually they all taste about the same to me. The real purpose of the milk product is for mouth & pallet feel, and more importantly to inhibit the formation of large sugar crystals as the candy cools.

Pralines are a crystalline candy, but the smoothness of the candy is controlled by the size of the sugar crystals. The smaller the crystals the smoother and creamer the praline will taste. As the sugar crystals grow larger the praline will have a grainier and grainier taste.

The fats in butter and milk coat the sugar crystals and slows down their aggregation into larger and larger crystals. But the fats can only do so much, so the praline mixture is also beat as it cools. This whipping also discourages larger crystals from forming.

In some praline recipes you see corn syrup, lemon juice, or cream of tartar. What is this for? Well, adding corn syrup (glucose) to a praline recipe is another way to discourage the formation of large sugar crystals. And adding an acid like lemon juice or cream of tartar will “invert” the sugar and break down the complex sugar molecule (sucrose) into its component parts (fructose and glucose) thereby giving you a smoother candy.

If your praline recipe calls for butter, you may also see salt as an ingredient. The salt helps stabilize the butter and keeps it from separating. But don’t substitute salted butter if your recipe calls for unsalted. Salted butter contains less fat and more liquid than unsalted butter, and this change may throw off your sugar/liquid proportions.

Avoid making pralines on a humid day. Sugar is hygroscopic and will absorb additional moisture on a humid data. This might throw off the sugar to liquid ration and keep your pralines from hardening.

More tips to come...


  1. BTW I see you used a Magnalite pot. I bet that worked great for the pralines!

    1. I love the Magnalite pots. I have 5 or 6. You should see the huge one I have for gumbo!

    2. Ha! I have NONE, but I've cooked in them. A FRIEND in Missouri finds them everywhere. Haven't even seen ONE in the twelve years we've been in Georgia. What is that all about??? I'd love to see your gumbo pot! Post a picture! ;)

    3. I posted a picture of the gumbo pot. Third picture down in the blog entry. And try Sams for the Magnalite pots. That is where I got my big one.

    4. WOW! That bad boy looks like he fits on the BIG burner!!! Thanks for the Sam's tip. I'll check it out!

  2. I think my original comment went into the interweb ethers!

    Loved all the information you gave! Awesome! Only now, I have a problem. I'll have to try ALL the recipes. Darn! ;)

    1. I know how you feel. I keep "testing" the White Sugar recipe over and over again. Oh the things we must do in the name of research.

    2. I know. Wearing the evidence of 'food testing'!