There are few things more decadent than a freshly made Southern praline. At once feather light and melt-in-your-mouth rich, buttery smooth, achingly sweet, and perfectly punctuated by the barely bitter bite of pecans, pralines have been a standard of Southern candy shops and street vendors for as long as memory serves. Though cities from Charleston to San Antonio vie for the right to claim the confection as their own, the recipe actually originated long before the Southern cook: it was created over four hundred years ago and five thousand miles away, in the castle kitchen of a French duke and diplomat by the name of Comte du Plessis-Praslin.
Though the praline’s point of origin goes relatively uncontested, exactly how the recipe came to be is the subject of as much controversy as the pronunciation of the candy itself (prah-leen? pray-leen? prah-lin?). Some claim that the duke’s officer of the table, Chef Clement Lassagne, was inspired by the sugary grins and sticky fingers of local children that he caught pinching almonds and pastry from the castle kitchen, or, in another variation, found himself hypnotized by a hauntingly sweet smell coming from the castle halls, one that he followed to find children caramelizing sugared almonds over a candle. Yet another story gives credit to a clumsy kitchen apprentice, who bumbled into a bowl of almonds, knocked its contents into a bubbling vat of caramel, and saved his skin by passing the accident off as an intentional masterpiece.
The most popular renditions of the praline’s genesis, however, give credit to the duke himself, a notorious ladies man who sought his chef’s assistance in finding a unique way to ingratiate himself to the fairer sex. Lassagne’s solution—a mouthwateringly rich blend of caramelized sugar and almonds—was wrapped in paper and sent into town, stamped with the duke’s name: Praslin. Although it is all but impossible to know how effective the confection was on the part of the duke, for both the cook and his creation it brought wild success. Lassagne went on to launch a candy shop—one that still exists today—and the praslines acquired fame across the city, across France, and eventually, across the ocean, where they took hold in a rapidly growing French colony by the name of New Orleans.
Praslins arrived on North American soil in the early part of the eighteenth century, tucked away in the recipe books and hope chests of the casquette girls, women sent from France to offset the shortage of females and provide prospective wives for New Orleans’ colonists. As it would turn out, women weren’t the only thing in short supply in the new colony: almonds—primary players in the recipe for praslins—were virtually impossible to find. What appeared to be a setback, however, soon revealed itself to be a serendipitous snag, the first step in the creation of the praline as we know it today. Though almonds did not fare well in New Orleans, pecans—nuts native to the area—thrive in the semi-tropical climate, and, thanks to their ready availability, soon replaced almonds as the recipe standard.
With inexpensive and easy to find ingredients, the praline soon proved itself to have potential far beyond that of a dessert; it provided a unique entrepreneurial opportunity for New Orleans’ growing population of gens de couleur libres, or free people of color, who could make and sell the confections with little upfront investment, no property, and, perhaps most importantly, no dependence on the white majority. As a result, pralines became a street vendor staple, and the praliniers that sold them—warm, fresh, and wrapped in waxed paper—a permanent part of French Quarter culture.
Before long, pralines began to grow in popularity, making their way along the Southern coastline and popping up in candy stores and street stalls from Savannah to San Antonio. Though regional variations of the original three-ingredient recipe developed—some adding maple, vanilla, or evaporated milk in hopes of creating a superior candy—most of today’s pralines still bear a remarkable resemblance to those created in the duke’s castle kitchen over four hundred years ago: sticky sweet, decadently rich, and heavenly enough to make one fall in love.
New Orleans Pralines
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup light cream
1 ½ cups pecans, halved
2 tablespoons butter
Combine sugars and cream in a heavy 2-quart saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture forms a thick syrup.
Add pecans and butter and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently.
Remove sauce pan and let cool for 10 minutes.
Use a tablespoon to drop rounded balls of the mixture onto sheet wax paper or foil, leaving about 3 inches between each ball for pralines to spread. Allow to cool.
Makes about 12 candies.