It’s hard to find one definitive history of the pecan praline in the southern United States. Although the stories surrounding the creation differ, it is widely agreed that pralines are named after a French diplomat from the early 17th century whose name and title was César, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin. The actual creator of the praline is believed to be his personal chef, Clement Lassagne, but there are many versions of the story.
Some versions have Lassagne getting the idea from children who were scavenging for scraps in the kitchens, nibbling on almonds and caramel leftover from one of his pastry creations. In another tale, the children were discovered stealing almonds from the kitchens when Lassagne followed the delicious smell to find them caramelizing the almonds in sugar over a candle. Yet one more version has Lassagne getting the idea from a clumsy young apprentice who knocked over a container of almonds into a vat of cooking caramel. A more playful account paints du Plessis-Praslin as a notorious ladies man, who asked his chef to come up with an irresistible treat he could present to the women he would court. He would put the sweet sugary nuts into little parcels marked with his name, so people began to call the sweets after him.
Whatever the real story, we know that the original praline was roughly a sweet confection made of almonds and some sort of creamy sugary caramelized coating. The candy was named praslin, after the owner of the kitchen instead of the chef, but Lassagne did well enough for himself, eventually opening a sweet shop in France called the Maison du Praslin, which still exists in some form to this day.
In Europe, the praline has evolved to an entirely different candy altogether. In Belgium and France, praline is a smooth paste of cocoa blended with finely ground nuts and used to fill chocolate bon-bons, but when it came to New Orleans it took another road.
It is believed that pralines were brought over from France by the Ursuline nuns, who came to New Orleans in 1727. They were in charge of the casket girls¹, young women sent over from France at the request of Bienville to marry New Orleans’ colonists. The nuns instructed the casket girls to be upstanding women in society as well as good wives to the settlers, and in the course of their scholastic and domestic educations, the girls were taught the art of praline making. Eventually the casket girls were married off and began to settle throughout New Orleans and around southern Louisiana, and their culinary education combined with local traditions become the foundations of the famous creole cuisine we know today.
Pralines were one of the more popular recipes adapted from the old French tradition. Almonds being in short supply, cooks began substituting the nuts of the native Louisiana pecan trees, and the forefathers of our modern pecan pralines were born. The praline became a sugary, creamy, pecan-laden candy. Praline pecans were known as individual pecans covered in the sugary coating. These new pecan pralines quickly spread throughout the New Orleans culture and became a common confection in the area. Soon, praline sales were a small but historically significant industry for the city.
Pralinières were the women who used to sell pralines on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans during the mid-to-late 19th century, providing a unique entrepreneurial opportunity to les gens de couleur libres (free people of color). Not only was being a pralinière a source of income, it was more importantly a means of providing for oneself without any strings attached. This was a rare situation for economically less-fortunate, but resourceful women of that time period, who were often employed as indentured servants or forced by need and without choice into plaçage, as kept-women of wealthy businessmen.
Being a thriving port city, people from all over the world came through New Orleans to the rest of the country, and the praline spread with them. Nowadays most people are unaware of the candy’s historical origin, and the praline is thought of as a southern confection not necessarily specific to New Orleans. Some believe the pecan praline is a Texan candy, whereas others assume it came from Savannah. The pronunciation of the candy is a bit of a point of contention as well. In New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, where there are many communities settled by the French, the pronunciation is prah-leen, with the long aaah sound, which is closer to that of the candy’s namesake du Plessis-Praslin. Other regions of the country, including parts of Texas, Georgia, and New England have anglicized the term and pronounce it pray-leen (we’ve even been asked in the store if a praline was a fish!). Other terms for pralines include pecan pralines, pecan candy, plarines and pecan patties, to name a few.
Modern day New Orleans pecan pralines are not very different than the ones made one hundred years ago. The common factors are dairy, sugar, and pecans. Some people use water or evaporated milk; others use vanilla, maple, and sometimes broken bits of pecans. Since 1992, Southern Candymakers pralines are made simply of fresh milk, cream, butter, sugar, and jumbo pecans halves the traditional way, each one scooped by hand to cool on a marble slab. And although many shops, ours included, make an array of flavors -from coconut to sweet potato- the original flavor is just creamy and sweet, and the one you should try first. The best way to do it is to come into one of our French Quarter shops where we’re making pralines fresh every day, all day long, and try a piece hot off the slab. Close your eyes and you can easily imagine yourself in Lassagne’s kitchen, savoring the delicious aroma of his sweet invention nearly 400 years ago!¹They were called Casket Girls (les Filles a la Casette) because each came to the city furnished with a casket-box filled with all their worldly possessions. They were distinguished from other women coming to New Orleans because they were hand-picked from orphanages and convent schools and charged to the Church to be molded into women of high morals, despite their less-fortunate circumstances of origin.