Playing with praline

Caramelized almonds are tasty on their own or, for a richer treat, you can dip them in dark chocolate.

chocolate almond 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chocolate almond 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not long ago my husband had a craving for caramel. We had just toasted some almonds and their sweet scent beckoned him to use them in a treat. So Yakir decided to make caramel. He put some sugar in a heavy saucepan and stirred it over low heat until it turned brown. I was intrigued since he generally leaves dessert-making to me. Making caramel reminds Yakir of a childhood incident. Once, when his parents were out, he and his young siblings felt like eating candy but there was none in the house. They knew that candy is made from sugar, so they embarked on a sweet adventure - they put some sugar in a pan and cooked it. Yakir said they found it tasty but their kitchen play certainly made a mess. His little sister, Hedva, got a sugar burn but tried not to cry when their parents returned to avoid giving away their secret. As the eldest child, Yakir got into the most trouble, as he should have known better. But since then, making caramel always reminded him of that experience. It's important to know that when sugar caramelizes, it reaches a very high temperature and, if any splashes on your skin, it causes severe burns. So, children, please don't try this at home! To make praline, you simply add toasted almonds to caramel and stir until they are coated. Basically, there are two ways to make caramel - dry and wet. The dry method calls for cooking sugar alone and stirring it constantly until it melts and eventually turns to caramel. The wet method begins with a syrup of sugar and water and requires less effort, as it needs no stirring while it caramelizes. Most chefs use the wet method, because the browning is easier to control; besides, the dry method is practical only for small quantities. Caramelized almonds make a tasty sweet on their own or, for a richer treat, you can dip them in dark chocolate. Some cooks add spices like cinnamon or cayenne to caramelized nuts and use them in salads instead of as sweets. Praline is said to have been invented in France in the 17th century by the chef of the duke of Plessis-Praslin. It began as a simple candy - an almond coated in caramelized sugar, just like we made at home. It was only when someone thought of grinding these almond candies that praline could be used widely as a flavoring in desserts. Later pastry chefs began to make it with hazelnuts too. I have experimented with other nuts as well - Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts and macadamia nuts - and found they make wonderful new variations. The usual proportions are equal weights of nuts and sugar. A somewhat similar mixture called nougatine or nougat is made from untoasted almonds mixed with light caramel. ALMOND PRALINE Use a heavy saucepan. Flimsy pans will burn from the high temperature of the caramel. Avoid using a saucepan with a black interior because it is difficult to see the caramel's color. CAUTION: Caramel causes bad burns. Be careful not to let any drip or splash on your fingers. Never touch hot praline. If praline is hard to break into chunks, use a rolling pin or hammer. You can first put the mixture in a plastic bag so it does not scatter all over the kitchen. Do not leave chopped or ground praline standing unwrapped; it absorbs moisture quickly and becomes sticky. Measure it just before using it. To clean the saucepan and spoon after making caramel, fill the pan with cold water and put the spoon inside. Heat over low heat; the caramel will dissolve into the water. 3⁄4 cup almonds 1⁄2 cup sugar 1⁄4 cup water Preheat oven to 200º. Toast almonds in shallow baking pan in oven until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Remove almonds from oven but leave them in baking pan used to toast them so they keep warm. Lightly oil a baking sheet. Put sugar in a heavy small saucepan that does not have a black interior and pour 1⁄4 cup water over sugar. Heat mixture over low heat until sugar dissolves, gently stirring occasionally. Then boil over high heat without stirring, occasionally brushing down any sugar crystals from sides of pan with wet pastry brush, until mixture begins to brown. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, swirling pan gently, until mixture turns rich brown caramel color and a trace of smoke begins to rise from pan. Do not let caramel get too dark or it will burn and praline will be bitter; but if caramel is too light, praline will be too sweet. Remove caramel immediately from heat and stir in almonds, being careful not to splash, until they are well coated with caramel. Stir over low heat for 11⁄2 to 2 minutes, to coat almonds with caramel. If the praline mixture crystallizes when the almonds are added, keep heating it over medium-low heat, without stirring, until the sugar melts again. At this point Be very careful not to let the mixture burn. Transfer immediately to oiled baking sheet. Cool completely. Break praline into small chunks. To coarsely chop praline, transfer to food processor and use on/off turns. To grind praline to powder, process in food processor, scraping mixture inwards occasionally, until finely ground. Transfer praline immediately to an airtight container. (Praline can be stored in airtight container three weeks at cool room temperature; or it can be frozen for several months. It may lose its crunchiness after a few weeks but will still be good.) Makes 11⁄3 to 11⁄2 cups. NOTE: Almond praline made from blanched almonds is lighter colored and more delicate in flavor than that made from unblanched ones. ALMOND PRALINE GATEAU This cake is composed of almond genoise - French sponge cake made with whole eggs - and layered with almond praline whipped cream. Crunchy chopped praline completes the garnish. Almond Genoise: 1⁄2 cup blanched almonds 2⁄3 cup sugar 2⁄3 cup all-purpose flour 4 extra-large eggs 60 gr. (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly Filling and Garnish: 1 cup heavy cream, well chilled 1 tsp. sugar 2 tsp. almond or cherry liqueur or brandy or 1 tsp. vanilla 7 Tbsp. praline powder (see previous recipe) 1⁄4 cup coarsely chopped praline (see previous recipe) For cake: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 175º. Butter 23-cm. x 5-cm. round cake pan. Line base with parchment or foil. Butter paper. Dust pan with flour. Grind almonds with 1 tablespoon sugar in processor as finely as possible. Transfer to medium bowl. Sift flour onto almond mixture and stir to blend well. Beat eggs and remaining sugar at high speed of mixer for 10 minutes or until very thick. Sprinkle about one third of almond mixture over batter and fold it in as gently as possible. Repeat with remaining nut mixture in 2 batches, folding just until blended and drizzling in melted butter just before final addition of almonds is completely blended. Pour batter immediately into prepared pan. Bake until tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Run thin-bladed flexible knife carefully around sides of cake; turn out onto rack and remove paper. Cool completely. Invert cake again onto another rack, then onto platter. Cut cake in half horizontally, using long serrated knife. For whipped cream and garnish: Beat cream with sugar in chilled bowl until soft peaks form. Add liqueur and beat until stiff. Transfer 1 cup of the whipped cream to small bowl. Add praline powder and fold together lightly. Spread mixture over bottom cake layer. Place second layer smooth side up on top. Spread remaining (white) whipped cream on sides and top of cake. Refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 4 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle top of cake lightly and evenly with coarsely chopped praline. Serve cold. Makes 8 to 10 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and in Hebrew of Sefer Ha'ugot, published by R. Sirkis.