The joy of praline…
I have to admit that there was a time in the distant past of my then benighted life when I didn’t rate praline much. It wasn’t that I disliked it, more that I could take it or leave it. Perhaps it was the result of being presented with too many little gold foiled and brown glassine cupped pralines from a mass market brand who shall remain nameless. Or perhaps I just wasn’t sophisticated enough. However it happened, one day I found myself at the helm of a small business selling Belgian chocolates, eating praline, and finding I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Better still, I discovered that praline could be made from different nuts, and that each type of nut gave a distinctive flavour to the praline. Inspired by this, I dug out some recipes for praline and began experimenting. I quickly discovered that it is surprisingly quick and easy to make a basic praline, and of course extremely fattening if you suffer from a lack of self control (which I find I do on occasion).
Most Belgian praline is made from either hazelnuts, or almonds. These make great tasting praline, and for those who are busy, it’s also a joy to discover that many supermarkets sell packets of hazelnuts or almonds ready shelled and even sometimes chopped and roasted, as this really helps in the convenience stakes. But less conventional nuts also make great praline, and each brings its own characteristics to ring the changes. Pistachio praline has a rich, fruity and almost savoury taste. Pecans have a lovely undertone of maple syrup. Brazilnut praline seems to carry a subtle note of butterscotch with it. Macadamia praline is exceptionally rich and slightly smoky tasting. Cashew is light and fudgey tasting. I find that I browse the aisles looking for a new nut I’ve not tried before to see what it tastes like when made into praline – I can’t wait until filberts are in season, for instance. However, walnuts generally seem to be unsuitable, often with a bitter taste.
There are lots of different things you can use praline for – an interesting addition to cookies, a topping for cakes, an unusual way to add texture to desserts, or as a pretty garnish, as well as traditional praline chocolates.
- If you’re going to attempt making your own praline there are a few pieces of equipment that are really essential. Firstly you need a heavy based saucepan, or your sugar syrup will burn, and trust me, that’s not a smell you want hanging around your kitchen. Secondly, you want a food processor to grind the praline into a fine powder (or perhaps, a mortar and pestle together with the patience of Job and the biceps of Popeye).
- Despite the fact that making praline is very easy, there is a definite art to making the best praline – it’s all in how you roast the nuts, and how much the sugar syrup is caramelised (and of course the quality of the ingredients, particularly the nuts). Of course, this also means that you can vary these processes to suit your particular recipe or tastes – a lighter gold syrup or more gently roasted nuts will have a more subtle taste obviously than something that’s darker in colour. If you want really reproducible results, or you feel nervous, buy yourself a sugar thermometer so you can monitor the progress of your caramel in a more scientific way (the temperature you are aiming for is 160-177°C). Otherwise, watch these processes like a hawk, especially the first time you make it - roasting nuts can easily burn, and so can sugar syrup. You’ll get the best results with a little practice and knowledge of your own oven and cookware.
- Buy the freshest nuts you can, in just the quantity you need for that batch of praline, and use them promptly. In practice this means buying them from a busy place which gets in fresh stock often. If you feel particularly fussy or worried about the quality of the stock, it pays to know that generally nuts stay fresher in their shells, but then of course you will need to use a nutcracker to get at them.
- All the recipes tell you that you should skin the nuts before using – there are various methods of doing this according to what type of nut you are using, but they are all fiddly. Being a lazy person I’ve tried making praline without removing the skins, and I’ve found that the praline still tastes perfectly good to me if the skins are left on pistachios or pecans for instance (though not the shells, obviously!). Experiment and see what you think. The two main methods are outlined in my basic praline recipe if you are the precious sort of person who can’t bear to do anything “wrong”. Of course, lots of nuts are available skinned these days, which can help speed up the process a lot.
- Once you’ve made the praline, keep it in an airtight container, as it has a considerable tendency to absorb moisture from the air and become incredibly sticky, which hinders its use in many recipes. It’s best kept in the fridge and used or eaten within a week of making.
- One other thing to note – the fineness of your praline will very much depend on how powerful your food processor is – commercially made praline uses very powerful machinery to grind the nuts so fine that they become a sort of paste, releasing the oils in the nuts. With domestic equipment, you probably won’t get that sort of fineness without burning the motor out, so you will get a slightly grainy texture. It still tastes fantastic, though!