Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Mar 4, 2012
11:20 AMSmall Dishes
Postcard from New Orleans: Pralines
In New Orleans, they know you’re from the hinterlands if you pronounce praline “pray-lean” instead of “praw-lean.” In reality they are two very different confections. The French praline is made with almonds and caramelized sugar and is often ground into a powder to use as a flavoring in desserts. In New Orleans it’s a candy made from sugar, milk or cream and pecans. I’m a fan of both.
The first time I visited New Orleans I remember women with colorful headscarves on the street who sold wax-paper wrapped pralines. I remember these candies as being so much better than what they sold in the stores in the French Quarter that cater to tourists. I was saddened a few years ago when my favorite candy shop where I had resorted to buying pralines closed. This past month, serendipity came to the rescue, but I have a story to tell first.
Anyone who knows anything about me knows I go to New Orleans frequently; most often for Mardi Gras. But every time I’m fortunate enough to be there, I try to do or see something different. (So far, I haven’t run out of options.)
After some research on the internet, I found a walking tour of the Garden District that caught my eye. It included lunch at Commander’s Palace (one of my favorite places!) … and unlimited martinis! Really? The tour operator was Racontours New Orleans. Skeptical as I was, I signed up.
On the Thursday before Mardi Gras, a muggy day with the smell of spring in the air, I made my way up St. Charles Avenue on the old green streetcar to the meeting point for my tour of the Garden District. Once there I was greeted by an entertainingly eccentric character right from the pages of Confederacy of Dunces named Tree. Actually, he reminded me of Davis in the HBO series Treme. In reality, he was not a native to the city but drawn there like so many by its enchantment.
I’ve walked through this beautiful and historic neighborhood many times before. I’ve read the series of Anne Rice books, beginning with The Witching Hour, which chronicles the Mayfair family who lived there. I knew that the Mayfair family home at First and Chestnut described by Rice in excruciatingly beautiful detail was once her actual home.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed hearing about all those who had lived and who now live in these architectural bijous. Spun were tales of success and failure than spanned two centuries. Tree was a masterful storyteller and his facts well-researched.
Still, I was focused on the end and lunch at Commander’s. An old Victorian mansion painted turquoise, the place is culinary shrine. A restaurant since the 1880s, taken over by the dynastic Brennan family in 1969, it has won about every restaurant accolade there is and perennially voted the favorite place for locals to dine. Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse got their start in the kitchen here. Books could be written about Commander’s Palace and have.
All that aside, considering that I’d paid $80 for the tour including the lunch, martinis, tax and gratuity, I didn’t expect much: Most likely a set three-course menu of dishes I would never otherwise order since they don’t appear on the menu. Was I ever wrong.
Commander’s was just enchanting as ever though a bit brighter, the result of its post-Katrina clean-up. Personally greeted by a doyenne of the Brennan family, our waiter whisked us through the main dining room bustling with Krewe of Muses members having their pre-parade luncheon. We settled upstairs in a jonquil yellow dinning room overlooking the garden. After greetings from what seemed like most of the staff, we sampled the colorful array of martinis on the table to decide which we liked best. I contemplated the menu in front of me that spelled out exactly what was to come. First arrived an amuse-bouche of cream of cauliflower and green onion soup. Next, a cup of traditional Creole turtle soup. One of the house specialties—shrimp with tasso and five pepper jelly—followed. There was a choice of three entrees. I chose the seafood cakes—crawfish, shrimp and redfish over andouille, corn and crispy garlic with a Creole tomato etouffée sauce. For dessert, there were three choices as well. Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult to pass up the signature bread pudding soufflé—one of my favorites that I’ve had many times before. Unbelievably, there was my all-time favorite: Ponchatoula strawberry shortcake! Louisiana Ponchatoula strawberries are some of the sweetest and best I’ve ever had and I’ve never had a better shortcake than they make at Commander’s Palace.
Even though close to ecstasy after this repast of sumptuous food and intoxicating drinks, out comes another treat: a king cake! Nothing says Mardi Gras like a king cake! And just when I was sure it was over, the best Sazerac—the prototypical New Orleans cocktail—emerges as a farewell lagniappe.
Finally parting company, my friend and traveling companion Scott Thornton asks Tree, “Where can you buy the best pralines? He says—and I listen attentively since by now I’ve learned to respect Tree’s opinion, “Southern Candymakers.”
So the next day we sought out the Decatur Street location in the French Quarter. Though it’s been there for 20 years, I’d never noticed it before. Many exquisitely made candies were on display in the glass case, but I ignored them for the pralines. There were several varieties, but to my dismay, seemingly they were out of the classic brown sugar and confection that I sought. When I inquired if such was indeed true, I got a look that said I had to be crazy. Then, as if by magic, a heaping tray of perfect pralines plops down, just made and still warm. As soon as I savored the free sample—creamy caramel that still had a crunch; full of big pecan hunks—I knew my memory for once had not failed me. So often foods I’ve enjoyed in the past take on mythic proportion, but here were the very pralines that I remembered sold by women in colorful headscarves in years long past.
Pralines are good just to eat, but I think they’re even better in desserts such as bread pudding, cheesecake and, of course, pie!
New Orleans Praline Cream Pie
1½ cups graham cracker crumbs
½ cup finely crumbled pralines
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven 375 degrees.
Combine the graham cracker crumbs, crumbled pralines and melted butter. Press the crumbs in the bottom and sides of a 9-inch metal pie pan. Bake the crust for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool completely on a rack before filling.
5 egg yolks
½ cup cornstarch
2½ cups whole milk
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Steen’s syrup (or substitute molasses)
1 cup roughly crumbled pralines
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a mixing bowl beat together the egg yolk and cornstarch. Set aside.
In a medium heavy bottom casserole combine the milk, sugar and Steen’s syrup. Place over medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture comes to a simmer. Remove the casserole from the heat and beat ¼-cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Gradually beat the egg yolk mixture into the hot milk mixture. Return the pan to medium heat and cook stirring constantly until the mixture thickens.—1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and continue to beat until smooth. Set a fine sieve over a clean mixing bowl and press the custard through the sieve to remove any lumps. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and cool to room temperature.
Fold the crumbled pralines and vanilla extract into the cooled custard. Spread in the pie shell and cover the surface with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours or more. (The pie is best if made the same day as served.)
Serve with the whipped cream topping (below).
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Steen’s syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine all the ingredient in a chilled bowl and beat with an electric beater until stiff peaks form. Serve immediately.
Makes 1 9-inch pie.