I was invited to join friends for dinner last night and volunteered to bring dessert. I decided to bring chocolate mousse (see previously published recipe on this site–) but wanted to make the presentation a little more elegant than simply serving a cup of chocolate topped with whipped cream. (Although, heaven knows, I would be the last person to suggest that there is anything wrong with mainlining straight chocolate mousse right out of the refrigerator. Been there. Done that.)
In the end, I decided that a shard of light-catching almond praline would look very pretty in each serving glass of mousse. And, in my search for a good praline recipe, I learned a bit about the history of pralines.
In reading story after story about pralines (including, alas, a Gulf-Coast middle school teacher’s PowerPoint presentation about the history of pralines), it became pretty clear to me that the whole praline story, like so much that you read on the Internet, takes some breath-taking liberties with the truth.
With that clearly understood, here are a few quasi-historical accounts of the origins of pralines.
French pralines made of almonds and caramelized sugar are believed to have been invented by Clement Lassagne, the personal chef of a French soldier/diplomat, Marshal du Plessis-Praslin, in the 17th Century.
By one account, the inspiration for the praline came when Lassagne discovered the Marshal’s precocious children (picture Jaden and Willow Smith in this role), fresh from cadging almonds and sugar from his kitchen, caramelizing them over a candle. In another version, the proverbial clumsy culinary apprentice trips over a container of almonds, fortuitously spilling them into a vat of cooking caramel. Voila!
Pralines! (I’d cast a bumbling–but always lovable– Steve Martin as the apprentice.) Yet another version has a lascivious Marshal Praslin presenting extravagantly gift-wrapped boxes of Lassagne’s irresistible confections to unsuspecting (but beautiful) young damsels who had caught the Marshal’s roving eye. (Too creepy to cast.)
Over the years, a number of variations on the original almond praline have been popularized. In Belgium, for example, a praline dipped in chocolate with a soft center became popular. Some sources credit this Belgian version of the praline to a pharmacist named Jean Neuhaus who hid foul-tasting medicines inside chocolate candy, later to make a fortune in candy making (presumably without the drugs–or, maybe not).
Later, French Ursuline nuns (I’m not making this up.) brought pralines to French America. There, cooks substituted pecans in their recipes because pecans were more available in America. They added dairy, too, to get the soft, creamy pralines of New Orleans-fame. Here, according to some accounts of New Orleans’ history, a new word was born–praliniere. The pralinieres were Eliza Doolittle-esque young women who scraped together a respectable living by selling pralines on the streets of the French Quarter.
The praline in this recipe is very easy to make but takes a bit of patience (and time) to bring the sugar syrup up to just the right temperature and the perfect dark amber color. It is the kind of recipe that requires your constant attention for a few minutes.
Here is the recipe I used.
Recipe: Almond Praline
1 1/2 C. sliced almonds
1 T. unsalted butter at room temperature
2 C. sugar
1/2 C. water
Juice of half a lemon (1T.)
Place almonds on a baking sheet and toast in a preheated 350 degree F. oven until the almonds are a light brown. Remove from oven and set the almonds aside to cool.
Butter a large baking sheet and spread a thin layer of almonds on the baking sheet. Set aside.
Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan and stir to dissolve the sugar. Heat sugar and water mixture to a boil. As you do this, use a pastry brush and water the brush the insides of the pan to prevent sugar crystals from forming. Once your water and sugar mixture is boiling, continue to boil (but discontinue stirring the mixture) until the liquid turns a deep amber color. Watch your pan carefully and take the liquid off the heat as soon as the proper color is achieved. Stir in the lemon juice. Immediately pour the mixture over the almonds. You can tilt the baking pan to distribute the cooked sugar syrup if that is necessary.
Cool completely. Once cooled and hardened, break the praline in pieces to use on your desert. Alternatively, you can crush the shards of praline and sprinkle them over a dessert.
Here is a link to the original recipe: