Pecan pralines a sweet tradition (no matter how you say it)

Confectioner Becca Reyenga addresses the pronunciation question daily, sometimes as many as six times a day, she estimates:

"People in Texas say 'pray-leens.' People in Louisiana say 'prah-leens.' However you say it, they taste the same."

That unmistakable taste - chewy pecans enrobed in caramelized sugar kissed by fragrant vanilla - is pure Texas.

And pure Louisiana, too. The pecan praline is beloved in both states by sugar fiends whose passion for the glazed nut patty intensifies during the holidays.

 

Reyenga, owner of Eat My Pralines confectionery, is in the midst of her busiest season, when pralines are given as gifts and found filling candy dishes and dessert buffets of every good Southern hostess' holiday party.

"The praline says holiday like no other candy," Reyenga said.

FOOD & COOKING

It's a year-round treat, too, as Brennan's of Houston diners can attest. Upon leaving the grand-dame restaurant, diners can help themselves to complimentary pralines. A number of old-school Tex-Mex restaurants still present handmade pralines at the end of the meal. It makes paying the check a little sweeter.

The pecan pralines tradition has its roots in Louisiana, where French settlers brought with them a hunger for almonds coated in boiled sugar that, according to popular accounts, were originally created by the cook to French diplomat of César, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin, a 17th-century sugar industrialist; they were called "praslin."

African-American cooks working for French colonists adapted the recipe by using native Louisiana pecans and adding cream. Voilà, the velvety, sugary pecan patty was born. By the mid-1800s, pralinieres were selling the candy in the French Quarter. Today, New Orleans tourists may find it hard to leave the city without boxes of pralines.

The Texas history of pralines is no less evocative. According to culinary historian MM Pack, the Texas praline's ancestry came both from the east (New Orleans) and from the south (Mexico). Both France and Spain brought their sweet tooth to the New World "more or less at the same time," Pack said. The pecan-candy traditions - pecans because they were plentiful and free - found a welcome home in Texas, where industrious Mexican immigrants could make money from candy that was relatively cheap to produce.

Pack cited the Texas-Mexican history of the border town candyman (men selling sweets from carts and baskets) as a natural link for pecan candy at Tex-Mex restaurants.

"It was a short step from the candy sellers on the streets to the candy in Mexican restaurants," she said.

Beginning in the early 1900s, pecans became a source of income for Mexican immigrants who gathered, shelled and dried them. Pecan candy soon became a tradition.

Mexican-American know-how for pecan pralines found its way into Tex-Mex restaurants, where Mexican candies - dulces - were sold.

"All the little Mexican restaurants had a display case by the cashier selling cigars and candy," said Ricardo Molina, whose grandparents Raul and Mary Molina opened a Mexican restaurant in Houston in 1941 that would grow into the Molina's Cantina restaurants today.

Ricardo Molina now runs Molinas with his brothers Raul III and Roberto. His father, Raul Jr. - who grew up in the business and acquired it from his father in 1977 - began giving pralines to customers in 1965. The pecan candy was made in-house (it still is, daily) and presented to each table along with the check. Today that tradition continues at Molina's, where they can go through more than 500 pieces of candy a day in one store.

"They're expected; if we run out people aren't happy," Molina said. "It's one of those things that started and we can't get rid of - like chips."

That Tex-Mex restaurant tradition of free pralines can still be found in Houston restaurants such as Loma Linda on Telephone, Spanish Village (praline with a strawberry on top) and the chain of Los Tios Mexican Restaurants.

"There was a time when you would find them for sale from pushcarts in all the border towns," said Gary Adair, owner of Los Tios. "Los Tios has been serving complimentary pralines since Day 1, now 47 years ago. Our pralines are handmade every day at each location. We serve them as a sweet treat when we present the check. Maybe that's what brings so many folks back, again and again."

Though the Texas praline tradition is strong in these parts, so, too, is the heritage of Louisiana pralines. And there's no greater ambassador of that tradition than Brennan's of Houston, which has always set out trays of Louisiana pralines for its guests. But the Brennan's praline may be in a league of its own. It's a creamy thing, petal soft and melt-away rich. It differs from typical Texas pralines that offer a harder, sometimes even crunchy candy texture.

"There are two types of praline makers in the South: those who make soft pralines and those that are incorrect," Brennan's owner Alex Brennan-Martin said. The family's praline recipe originated with Brennan-Martin's grandmother. "We follow a traditional New Orleans recipe. If you don't know the difference, you have to have eaten one to know."

Reyenga is just as proud of the praline recipe on which she built her 2-year-old business, Eat My Pralines. It's her Louisiana-bred mother Ruth Ann Reyenga's recipe, which has been described by friends and family as "killer." So good it jump-started Becca Reyenga's business; she started selling at farmers markets and pop-ups and is opening a full-fledged brick-and-mortar store in early 2018 in Houston's Chinatown.

 

"You crunch into them, and they start melting in your mouth," Reyenga said of her pralines that are made with roasted Texas pecans, sugar, Mexican vanilla, good butter, heavy cream and a pinch of salt.

Praline traditions seem to have merged in Reyenga's hands. Hers is a Louisiana-born praline that is decidedly Texas in nature. And whatever its origins, it tastes like the holidays.

"It's such an old-fashioned dessert," she said. "When you taste them, it takes you back to that amazing praline that your mom or grandmother or great-aunt made. There's just something beautiful about this old-fashioned candy."

Brennan's Pralines

Makes about 4 dozen

1 quart (about 4 cups) heavy cream

1 pound (about 2 ¼ cups) granulated sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

2 cups chopped pecans

Line 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large heavy saucepan, slowly simmer cream, sugar and corn syrup over low heat. As the cream mixture simmers, be careful of boil-over in the early stages. Let the mixture reduce, stirring occasionally.

When cream mixture starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, you need to stir almost continuously until done. As the mixture reduces and the sugar starts to caramelize, the mixture becomes thicker and begins to turn light brown.

When the mixture reaches soft-ball stage of 240 degrees, take off the heat and stir in pecans until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Scoop out onto parchment paper with a 1-tablespoon scoop or use a teaspoon to measure out 1 tablespoon of candy.

Notes: It took a good 30 minutes of stirring to get to cook the cream/sugar mixture to get to soft-ball stage. The candies appeared glossy like a chewy caramel at first, but as they dried, they took on the familiar matte look and velvety sugar texture. Letting them dry on the sheet pan overnight got them to the Brennan's look and consistency.

Molina's Pralines

Makes about 24-30

7 fluid ounces (¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons) milk

1¾ cups granulated sugar

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup chopped pecans

Pinch cinnamon

Line cookie sheets with Silpat or wax paper. Place milk, sugar and vanilla in a heavy-duty saucepan and stir to combine. Place over medium heat and continue to stir mixture until it begins to boil. Immediately stop stirring and reduce heat to medium-low. Mixture will bubble quickly, but if it bubbles too high in the saucepan, reduce the heat a little. Allow mixture to cook for 20-25 minutes or until it is a medium caramel color. Candy thermometer should register within a couple of degrees of 240. You can also test candy by scooping a little in a spoon and dropping it carefully into a glass of water. If it hardens, it is ready.

Remove saucepan from heat. Add pecans and cinnamon and stir until candy begins to thicken. Scoop candy using a teaspoon or iced teaspoon and pour onto lined cookie sheet. Work quickly as the pralines will set quickly. Allow pralines to cool completely.

Notes: My first batch seized at the end, and I had to start again. As the recipe states, you have to work quickly. My candy began to harden and develop a crystalized texture almost immediately. This is a harder, crisper praline than Brennan's type.

Pecan Pralines

Saveur adapted this recipe from "MexTex: Traditional Tex-Mex Taste" cookbook by Matt Martinez Jr., whose parents, Matt and Janie Martinez, founded Matt's El Rancho in Austin in 1952.

Makes about 2 dozen

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups sugar

¾ cup milk

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

1 ½ cups pecan halves or pieces

Line two large sheet pans with wax paper and 1 tablespoon of the butter and set aside.

Combine sugar, milk and baking soda in a medium pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer (soft-ball stage), 18-20 minutes.

Remove pot from heat, add remaining 1 tablespoon butter and vanilla extract and stir quickly until completely incorporated and creamy, about 20 seconds. Add pecans and stir well to coat.

Working quickly, drop generous spoonfuls of candy onto prepared pans to form disks about 2 inches wide. Let them cool and harden completely, about 2 hours. Carefully peel the pralines from the wax paper. Serve at once or store in airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days.

Notes:We lined our pans with parchment, so we used only the 1 tablespoon butter for the candy. This was the easiest of the three recipes; the hot candy was easy to work with in making the disks. The color of the candy was the darkest with a true caramelized sugar and nut flavor.