Christmas Sweets

Like all Creole cooking, Christmas candies are different when stirred up in the kitchens of south Louisiana. Yes, we may make some Southern-style fudge or divinity, but the pride of local cooks, and what quickly disappears from the bon-bon plates, are the pralines, meringues and sugared pecans. These confections originated with the combination of French technique and indigenous ingredients.

Take pralines, for example. In France, the sweet consisted of almonds coated with caramelized sugar. It was sometimes crushed for use as a decoration, like a dragee, and often garnished brioches and souffles. It was named for Comte de Plessis-Praslin (pronounced PRAH-lean) whose chef invented the candy. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, pralines became a traditional fairground sweet, cooked in the open air, with peanuts sometimes replacing almonds because they were cheaper. Then came the Louisiana version, using two of the state’s greatest resources, sugar and pecans, and the rest was history. Pralines are a delicacy, as important to the culinary tradition as poor boys and bread pudding.

European chefs excel in their creations with eggs. Meringues are one of their classic creations. They are simple to make despite the New Orleans humidity. After baking, they must be left in the oven for several hours or even overnight for that perfectly dry consistency. Four egg whites and some sugar turn into a giant tin of confections. Pecans and vanilla extract are standard additions although some cooks add chocolate chips and other flavorings such as cocoa or lemon. Meringues keep well for several days in an airtight container stored in a dry place.

Pralines were my nemesis (and still are) until I was given a recipe for microwave pralines. At first I rebelled, not being a microwave cook. Do not get me wrong; I wouldn’t take anything for my microwave when it comes to melting butter, heating a cooling cup of coffee, thawing meat I forgot to take out of the freezer or frying bacon. I just don’t use it for major cooking. But these pralines that I had at a party were so good that I couldn’t resist trying them in the microwave. Hooray! It solved my problems with pralines that never firmed up and those that hardened into a dry state. I never knew whether my candy thermometer was working correctly or if I was just plain dumb. Thank goodness I can take those options off my list, thanks to my handy microwave.

Finally, there are the little pecans that go so quickly at holiday gatherings. They are small enough not to put a guilt trip on dieters, that is until they see how good they are and eat 10 more. These are easy to make, too. All you need is a pecan tree in your back yard, but short of that, you can buy two cups of pecan halves for about $5 at the grocery store and whip them up in about half an hour. Just the thing to serve with drinks when a holiday visitor drops by.

I will probably make all three of these for Christmas, along with some fudge. I’d better get started on a diet right now so I can gain it all back before the new year. That’s when the real diet starts.

MERINGUES
1 cup pecans, chopped fine
      and roasted
4 egg whites
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or foil.

Chop pecans and spread on a baking pan. Place in a preheated 350-degree oven for 8 minutes. Set aside to cool. Set oven at 225 degrees.

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites and salt until stiff. Add cream of tartar and gradually add sugar, beating until the mixture is smooth and shiny. Add vanilla and beat a few seconds more. With a spatula, fold in pecans.

Drop mixture onto cookie sheets in heaping teaspoonfuls (about the size of a ping pong ball) about 1 inch apart. Bake for 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave meringues in the oven for several hours.

Makes about 40 meringues. Store in air-tight containers.

MICROWAVE PRALINES
1 1/2 cups pecans, halves
      or large pieces
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
2/3 cup half-and-half
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Spread pecans on a cookie sheet and roast in a 350-degree preheated oven for 7 minutes. Set aside.

Mix all ingredients except pecans in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 8 minutes. Add pecans and wait for 1 minute. Stir for several minutes until creamy.

Spoon onto wax paper using a small serving spoon for the mixture and a teaspoon to help.

Makes about 15 pralines.

SUGARED PECANS
1 large egg white
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons self-rising flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecan halves

Grease a large cookie sheet plus a small pan and preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg white until fluffy. Fold in all other ingredients. Lift each pecan from the mixture and drain off any excess. Place pecans on pans about 1/4 inch apart. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Makes about 3 cups.

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