Praline Powder: The French Confection

I may be prejudiced, being a crunch fan who's equally fond of anything with nuts in it, but as far as I'm concerned praline powder is a positive treasure, the home cook's key to dandy desserts in minutes. Caramelly, toasty and nutty, sweet but not too sweet, praline is easy to make from ordinary ingredients and it keeps indefinitely. All it asks is a dry day--humidity makes it sticky.

Try folding crushed praline into ice cream, coffee especially, or sprinkling it over hot fudge sundaes. Elevate a cheesecake by beating some ground praline into the batter. Use it as a toping for baked apples or pears. Make an instant peach parfait by layering slices of ripe fruit with crushed praline and whipped cream. If you like sweet oatmeal it would probably be good on that, too.

PRALIN, or PRALINE

Pralin is the French term, after a 17th Century French diplomat, Cesar du Plessis-Praslin, who advocated the use of sugared almonds for medicinal purposes. Supposedly, it was the Creole French settlers of Louisiana who submitted pecans for almonds and transformed the hard, glossy caramel of pralin into the soft, sugary patties known as pralines.

Praline is also the English word for the hard stuff, but confusion can usually be avoided by looking at the context. Praline is always an ingredient, while pralines are eaten straight (assuming you can stand them). Praline is the pastry-cook's word for desserts with pralin , or praline, in them.

The nut of choice in France is the almond, while in Germany and Central Europe hazelnuts are preferred. You can also make praline with walnuts or pecans, but because these have a higher oil content the finished product cannot be ground to the fine, dry powder so often called for in classic pastry making.

PRALINE POWDER

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar or tiny squeeze lemon juice

1 cup nuts, toasted until golden brown

Lightly butter or line with parchment paper heavy, heat-proof platter, marble slab or baking sheet. Combine sugar, water and cream of tartar in heavy, lidded saucepan. Place over low heat and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves.

Use pastry brush dipped in cold water to wash down any sugar crystals clinging to side of pan. Cover and simmer 3 minutes. Uncover and cook, without stirring, over medium heat, until sugar turns to color of honey. Stir in nuts. Cook until syrup is dark amber. Pour onto prepared platter and spread out as thinly as possible. Cool.

Break praline into chunks and store airtight until needed. Grind in food processor or crush with rolling pin. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

One step over from praline, this caramel corn is like Crackerjack that's gone to heaven.

Monika always makes the syrup in her (full-size, 650-watt) microwave oven, the making of a caramel being one of those things at which microwave ovens excel. Since I am the second-last human being in America still microwave-free, I make the syrup on top of the stove. As usual with hard caramel, be sure to choose a dry day.

MONIKA'S KILLER CARAMEL CORN

1 cup pecans

1/2 cup almonds

1/2 cup hazelnuts

3 quarts freshly popped corn

1/2 cup butter

2 cups brown sugar (light, dark or mixture), packed

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Spread nuts on shallow pan and roast at 350 degrees about 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside.

Place popcorn in very large bowl and keep warm, uncovered.

Combine butter, brown sugar, syrup, vanilla, soda and salt in 2-quart glass mixing bowl. Do not cover. Microwave on HIGH (100% power) 1 minute. Stir, then microwave 2 minutes more. Stir again, then microwave on HIGH 5 minutes more or until it registers 290 degrees on candy thermometer. (If you don't have candy thermometer, test by dropping bit of syrup in glass of cold water. It's ready when hardened candy is brittle instead of chewy.)

Quickly stir in nuts, then pour at once over warmed popcorn, stirring with wooden spoon. Keep stirring until syrup is as evenly distributed as possible. (Use 2 spoons and stir-toss as though making salad. Don't expect complete coating, some of corn tends to stay uncovered no matter what.) Spread mixture in lightly buttered jellyroll or other large, shallow baking pan.

Bake at 275 degrees 40 to 60 minutes, lightly stirring about every 15 minutes. Cool. Pack at once into airtight tins and store away from moisture. Keeps for several weeks. Makes about 12 cups.

STOVE-TOP SYRUP:

Combine all syrup ingredients except for baking soda in large, heavy saucepan. Cook, stirring, over low heat until butter is melted and all is evenly mixed. Use pastry brush dipped in cold water to wash down any sugar crystals clinging to side of pan, then cook undisturbed over medium heat until syrup is ready as described above. Stir in soda (mixture will foam up), then add nuts and proceed as directed.

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