The secret to homemade Pecan Pralines? Have the sugar syrup reach soft-ball stage. It requires a lot of experience, a good candy thermometer, or both!
Baking vs. Boiling Sugar
Generally speaking, I love to bake. Yes, there can be pitfalls, from mismeasured ingredients to overheated (or underheated) ovens, but more often than not things turn out well. Candy making is a whole other ball o’wax…if baking is temperamental, working with sugar is downright ornery…when you’re boiling sugar, a few degrees can make a huge difference. When I was in culinary school, one of the first classes I took was called American Regional Cuisine which featured…uhm…foods from around America (who’d a thunk it?). One unit in particular was Cajun/Creole cuisine (try saying that 3 times fast!), and among the recipes for Gumbo, Étouffée, and Red Beans & Rice was one for homemade Pecan Pralines. Not having ever been to Louisiana, I had thought that Pecan Pralines were candied nuts, and in a way, I was right. However, these weren’t praline pecans (by that I mean individual candied nuts, like cinnamon almonds), but a drop of what can only be described as pecans embedded in a creamy, brown sugar blanket that slowly and luxuriously melts in your mouth (Mmmmmm…). This recipe quickly became a favorite in my house, so much so that they’ve become my younger daughter’s go-to recipe for impressing people. Yes, they’re that good!
So why am I highlighting pralines? Well, it’s the heating of the sugar to the precise temperature of 239°F, what is called soft-ball stage, that makes or breaks this recipe. It’s been hit-or-miss for me when I’ve tried it, even with a candy thermometer, because I never really paid attention to what soft-ball stage really meant. And believe me when I tell you it means a lot! Here’s a quote from the Exploratorium: “As a sugar syrup is cooked, water boils away, the sugar concentration increases, and the temperature rises. The highest temperature that the sugar syrup reaches tells you what the syrup will be like when it cools. In fact, that’s how each of the temperature stages…is named.”
** Warning: technical talk ahead…proceed with caution, or just meet up with us at the recipe **
Sugar as Science
There are 6 stages in candy making: thread, soft-ball, firm-ball, hard-ball, soft-crack, and hard-crack (boy, there are so many asides I could make about these names!). I won’t bore you with the characteristics of each of these stages (you can go to the Exploratorium’s website and bore yourself without me), but I want to highlight the soft-ball stage:
- Range: 235° F–240° F
- Sugar concentration: 85%
- Comments: At this temperature, sugar syrup dropped into cold water will form a soft, flexible ball. If you remove the ball from water, it will flatten like a pancake after a few moments in your hand.
So the soft-ball stage is when the sugar syrup will have some cohesion, but it will keep the candy soft…think fudge. The gist of it all is that using a candy thermometer to know the exact temperature of the syrup is important (especially to an engineer like me who likes precision). Yes, you could do the whole “drop a small amount into cold water and evaluate the texture” test, but if you have a candy thermometer (that’s calibrated, to be sure), then you’ve already the means to know if you’re there or not.
But just using the thermometer isn’t enough…candy stages are a range of temperatures, and since a few degrees makes a difference, where in the range you decide to proceed with the recipe is crucial. That’s the crux of why this recipe was hit-or-miss for me…I would just go to 234°F, the lowest temperature of the range (yup, I’m impatient that way), and move on from there. And it showed in the end product…in the mouth the candy was dry and grainy rather than soft and satiny. I finally learned to wait until the syrup got to 239°F (which, incidentally, was labelled “soft-ball” on my old candy thermometer), and boy, what a difference…smooth creamy brown sugar goodness just melting on the tongue. Man, these were good!
Homemade Pecan Pralines
- 1 cup brown sugar (7 oz, 196g)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (3-1/2 oz, 100g)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 cup pecans (4 oz, 112g), coarsely chopped
- 2 Tbsp butter (1 oz)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 pinch salt
- Combine the sugars, salt, cream, and cream of tartar in a heavy pan. Stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves, wiping the crystals from the sides of the pan with a rubber spatula.
- Over medium heat, cook for 15 minutes or until mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, 239°F, on a candy thermometer. (Note: original recipe said 234°F–240°F [112.5–115°C])
- Add the pecans. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Add the butter, vanilla, and salt.
- Beat until the mixture looks creamy around edges of pan (this happens very quickly but if you need to speed the process, put saucepan in cold water while beating).
- When cool, remove from the paper, or when the pralines cool and get firm, cut the waxed paper between each one and wrap individually.
Pecans embedded in a creamy, brown sugar blanket that slowly and luxuriously melts in your mouth…mmm…
One more point…I had always pronounced these as “Pray-leens,” but recently I was corrected: they should be called “Prah-leens.” However you pronounce them, I hope you will try them. Be sure to have your candy thermometer (and patience) handy, and have at it. Now please excuse me while I go take a mental visit to Cajun country with a homemade Pecan Praline in my hand.
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!