Praline Dreams

New Orleans, LA –
For people exchanging gifts during this holiday season of tighter personal budgets, the old adage that "it's the thought that counts" may be more important than ever. But even if iPhones and Xboxes are out of reach, the sturdy traditions of the old Creole kitchen can help you knock a few names off your shopping list. After all, pretty much anyone with a stove, a little time and an appreciation for local history can prepare batches of pralines, creating a classic, classy and eminently accessible handmade gift to present to friends -- one imbued with local flavors and local heritage in equal measures.

There are many variations on the story of how the praline came to be, but most of them revolve around the manor house of the 17th-century French diplomat Cesar du Plessis Praslin. A chef in his house developed a special technique for coating almonds in cooked sugar, and the Praslin name lives on with a different spelling as the term candied nuts, pralines.

These early confections traveled with Frenchmen to their new colony in Louisiana, a land where sugar cane would later be cultivated in abundance. Pecan trees grew wild in the warm climate, and soon orchards were developed that would eventually make Louisiana one of the top pecan producers. So, in Creole kitchens, Louisiana pecans were substituted for the more exotic almonds, butter and cream was added, giving the candy more body, and a Southern tradition was born.

Inexpensive and easy to make, pralines were an early entrepreneurial vehicle for black women in 19th century New Orleans when few other commercial outlets were open to them. By 1901, the Daily Picayune (a predecessor to today's Times-Picayune newspaper) was already describing in nostalgic terms the "pralinieres," or the praline street vendors of the Vieux Carre. And in the 1930s, the Louisiana folklorist Lyle Saxon described praline sellers garbed aprons and head wraps, fanning their candies with palmetto leaves against the heat and singing the praises of their pretty pralines to passersby. From these roots, the candy has remained closely associated with New Orleans.

The essential recipe is simplicity incarnate. Here's how the entire procedure is prescribed in the 1904 cookbook called "Cooking in the Old Creole Days." It reads: "take a cupful of well and carefully peeled pecans. Take two cupfuls of brown sugar and half a cupful of water. Let simmer on the fire until it candies. Put in the nuts. Stir them all the time until the sugar adheres to the nuts. Put in a plate to cool and serve"

Modern praline recipes have a few more steps, but are nearly as simple. You can find a sample one below. If you need inspiration, or even a few professionally-made samples on which to model your home batches, pay a visit to one of the many local candy shops specializing in pralines (see below). Some sport open kitchens so visitors can watch the elementary process of praline making as cooks spoon gooey dollops of nuts and sugar onto marble slabs to cool.

The air inside these shops can be dangerously sweet at times, swimming with the warm smells of commingled sugars and butter. This can be the aroma of your home too, as your kitchen becomes an economical workshop for holiday gifts where it's the history, the flavor, and the thought, that counts.

Try this simple New Orleans praline recipe:

1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light cream
1 1/2 cups pecans, halved
2 tablespoons butter

Combine cream and both sugars in a saucepan and bring slowly to a boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon until the mix becomes a thick syrup.

Add butter and pecans, mix thoroughly, and continue cooking medium heat while stirring frequently.

Remove saucepan from heat and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Using a tablespoon, make rounded balls of the mixture and drop them on wax paper or foil to cool. Pralines should spread flat so leave room between each ball. Makes about a dozen pralines.

Or leave it to the pros:

Aunt Sally's
810 Decatur St., New Orleans, 800-642-7257

Evans Creole Candy Factory
848 Decatur St., New Orleans, 504-522-7111

Laura's Candies
938 Royal St., 504-524-9259; 331 Chartres St., 504-525-3880

Pralines by Jean
1728 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, 504-525-1910

Loretta's Authentic Pralines
2101 N. Rampart St., New Orleans, 504-944-7068

Southern Candymakers
334 Decatur St. and 1010 Decatur St., 800-344-9773