My Learning Story
How I Learned to Make Pralines
For those of us who were fortunate enough to have grown up in the Southern states, pecan pralines are as much of a staple as SEC football or yellow pollen in March. However, I was born in Columbus, Ohio. Both of my parents, and all of their parents, and most of grandparents were also born in the North. I had never even heard of a pecan praline until when I went on my first trip to Savannah, Georgia during the summer that I was 12 years old. In the famous River Street Sweets Shop, I had my first sugary, nutty, and sweet praline, and it was love at first bite. So for that Christmas, my mother and I attempted to recreate the taste sensation that we had experienced so that our out-of-town relatives could enjoy a taste of the South.
American pralines are made with brown sugar, cream, butter, and pecans. What gives the dessert its signature texture and taste is the tricky technique of boiling the sugar mixture and pouring it back out on wax paper. Sugar is a tricky substance to boil-it goes very quickly from a sweet, smooth substance to a burnt mess. The praline recipe I was using involves boiling the thick sugar mixture for 25 minutes while stirring vigorously. In addition, the chef has to stir the entire mixture-not just the top, but also the sides and bottom. Whoever said baking desserts wasn’t a workout had obviously never spent much time in the kitchen at all!
My first attempt at pralines coincided with the television premiere of some movie that I had wanted to see for the longest time. I think it starred Will Smith, but I don’t remember which one. The television in our den is the opposite direction from the stovetop, which caused me to turn around and try to watch the movie as I was making pralines (This was before the advent of TiVo and DVR technology, of course.) As the movie progressed, my arm got increasingly sore from stirring the thick, boiling sugar. I began to slack off in my stirring, missing the sides and bottom and rotating slower and slower. Suddenly, a horrible smell came to my attention and I realized that the stench was the signature scent of scorched sugar. I tried to turn off the stovetop and remove the large soup tureen I was working with (I had intended to make many, many pralines) to save the dessert, but to no avail. The sugar had completed its chemical transformation to a black brick, and it took the pot with it. There were no pralines that night.
If at first you don’t succeed, you should try, try again, right? So the next Christmas, I tried again. I paid more attention, allowed for no distractions in the kitchen, and made sure that I was using the correct stirring technique. But, maybe the pot was the wrong kind of metal, or maybe the heat was too high, for I again ruined the praline mixture. I had learned my lesson-I would never, ever be a candy chef. That year, I also learned how to order pralines from the annual River Street Sweets catalog and have them shipped to the house. Some things are better left to the professional confectioners!