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So, how long does it take to get the smell of burnt sugar out of upholstery?

I decided that National Almond Buttercrunch Day would be my first foray into candy making. I even went and bought a candy thermometer and everything. I diligently read on the internet about this sweet treat: a base of chopped toasted almonds, a candy centre and a chocolate topping… maybe even a little fleur de sel to make it chi chi. Fellows like this guy told me it would be “really simple” and gosh darn it, I went in confident.

As it turns out, way way over confident, and came out with a lump of dark brown sugar and some wasted nuts and chocolate. *wah*

This is the basic recipe, which I found on any number of websites, with very few variations:

2 cups (170 grams) sliced or slivered almonds, toasted

1 1/4 cups (270 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons water

1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1 teaspoon (4 grams) pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Topping:

6 ounces (170 grams) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350F

Put almonds on a baking sheet and bake them for 8-10 minutes, or until golden brown and fragrant. Set aside to cool.

Once the nuts have cooled to room temperature, place in a food processor, fitted with a metal blade, and pulse the almonds until they are finely chopped. Sprinkle half of the nuts in an 8 inch by 10 inch (20 cm x 25 cm) rectangle on a buttered or oiled baking sheet. Set aside.

In a medium-sized, heavy saucepan combine the brown sugar, water, butter, and corn syrup. Have the baking soda and vanilla extract ready. Bring the sugar mixture to a boil and cook, stirring as little as possible, until the mixture reaches 285 degrees F (140 degrees C) (soft-crack stage) on a candy thermometer. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat as the temperature will continue to rise to 290 degrees F (145 degrees C). Add the baking soda and vanilla extract and stir to combine.

Immediately pour this mixture evenly over the nuts on your baking sheet. Then place the chopped chocolate over the hot toffee. After a few minutes the chocolate will be soft enough to spread with an offset spatula in an even layer over the toffee. Sprinkle the remaining chopped almonds over the melted chocolate.

Cool completely and then cut into desired shapes using a sharp knife.

Somewhere around the 250F mark I started to smell brunt sugar. Just a wiff. I wiser woman would have pulled the pot off the stove immediately and figured something else out. No, not me. I soldiered on, and by the time I hit the recommended temp, the toffee was VERY dark brown and the burnt sugar smell was… well, everywhere. I decided to pour it out onto some of the nuts, just to see – maybe it still tasted ok? That was a naive hope – it did in fact taste like burning. Yick.

Back to the drawing board…

D

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It’s National Praline Day. It’s also Special Guest Star/Chef’s Day on the blog!!… oohhh ah, yes that’s right, I brought in a ringer! With that bit of titillation, I’m going to start with the former… and leave you in suspense for a bit!

Pralines are basically a syrup and nut confection, which have an interesting history and regionalism. As originally inspired in France at the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte by the cook of the 17th-century sugar industrialist Marshal du Plessis-Praslin early pralines were whole almonds individually coated in caramelized sugar (as opposed to a sheet of caramelized sugar covering many nuts). French settlers brought this recipe to Louisiana, where both sugar cane and pecan trees were plentiful. During the 19th century, New Orleans chefs substituted pecans for almonds, added cream to thicken the confection, and thus created what became known throughout the American South as the praline. Southern i.e. american pralines (say “PRAW-leens” in your head!) take on quite a few shapes and sizes and are generally either creamy or chewy and have the consistency of fudge, with a gritty texture to coming from the sugar.

Back in Europe, the powder made by grinding up such sugar-coated nuts is called pralin, and is an ingredient in many cakes, pastries, and ice creams. When this powder is mixed with chocolate it becomes praliné in French, which gave birth to what is known in French as praline belge or “Belgian chocolates”. Therefore, if you ask for a praline in France, Belgium, Germany etc, you are most likely to get a filled chocolate! In the United Kingdom, the term can refer either to praline (the filling for chocolates) or, less commonly, to the original whole-nut pralines.

Thus, we’ve got a lot of latitude to play with today for National Praline Day. And I left the decision making to two of my favourite Victoria chefs! If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve heard me enthuse about the food at Devour, this tiny bistro near my office. I’ve gotten to know Jena and Alison, the chefs and co-owners, via my many many visits. We were talking about the blog one day, and much to my delight, they offered to make something for it! So today I’m sharing with your pralines, Devour style.

This is what we're shooting for - light crunchy candy studded with nuts and chocolate (photo credit: Alison Bigg)

Alison said she stared with a recipe from epicurious [is it strange that it makes me feel better that the professional chefs occasionally just google things too?!?]. Of course, in true 365food style, there are a few modifications…

Pralines a la Devour!

Cocoa nib and Chili Praline

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tablespoon (packed) golden brown sugar
  • chilli flakes (!!) [Allison didn’t tell me how much to add – I think this may be a matter of taste/how hot your chillies are!]
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup cocoa nibs
  • 1/4 cup cashews, chopped

[Editorial Note: Allison said next time that she may try sprinkling the pralines with some maple smoked salt which she picked up at Defending Our Backyard, which I agree would be great – I like sweet and savoury together. So you may want to add that to your ingredient list!]

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk first 6 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Stir in cocoa nibs and chopped cashews.

Drop mixture by tablespoonfuls onto prepared sheet, spacing 1 inch apart. Bake until mixture spreads and is deep golden brown, about 18 minutes [though Allison reports she had to cook hers longer, to get a nice clear candy look to it]. The mixture will flow together into 1 piece on baking sheet!

Remove from oven; cool completely on sheet. Break praline into irregular pieces or shards.

Voila! Pralines a la Devour! (Photo credit: Alison Bigg)

The result was a thin crunchy clear candy studded with chocolate and nuts. It starts sweet, then you taste the nuts, and just when you think the bite is over there is a great gently kick of heat from the chilli peppers. Brilliant!

…but you don’t have to take my word for it. A whole batch of these pralines were made yesterday, and are being served today with vanilla icecream, at Devour. Stop on in and give this important holiday your full attention! You can also see what else the ladies are cooking today here (the menu is usually posted about 11 am, so be patient!). If indulging today is too last minute, I will also let you know that Devour is going to be open late all next week (8am – 8pm) to serve those of you out enjoying Jazzfest. Stop in for their mussels, you won’t be disappointed… better have some cheese too…

With big thanks to Alison and Jena,

Deanna

(Editor’s Note: Today our guest blogger is P, the greatest candy afficienado that any of us knows.

My sincerest apologies but for some reason I couldn’t get my computer to cooperate on the picture front tonight.  P sent me two pictures of (a) the candy aisle; and (b) the bulk candy section and they were both kinda great but my computer didn’t think so?  Try to imagine them anyway …  B.)

[Eds.: Here’s one I took especially for P in Barcelona]

candy market

Taken for P @ the market in Barcelona (just off la Rambla)

So, I suppose I was a natural pick for the blog post on Candy.  I am, after all, obsessed.  It must be the Caribbean blood in me. Sugar cane (usually distilled into rum) runs in my veins.

At first, I thought it strange that National Candy Day fell on November 4th rather than  on October 31, which many people would think is the natural choice.  Millions of homes across North America are packed with hundreds of varieties of sweet delights, sitting in bowls waiting to be handed out to the dozens (and dozens and dozens, in some neighbourhoods) of pairs of greedy little hands.  Goblins, fairies, superheros and villains, everyone rushes around filling bags with tiny packets of treats… which they will not be allowed to eat that night.  They will gorge themselves the next day, and be permitted to bring a small ration to school the next day.  It isn’t until a couple of days have passed that the kids start to forget they even HAVE buckets of candy sitting all over the house… and the parents give in to temptation and begin gorging on whatever is in the house.  And just as they begin to crash, they realize that every store they enter in the first week of November is filled with bags and bags of candy for sale.  And Sugar is like the Borg: resistance is futile.  That’s why National Candy Day comes a few days after Halloween. It’s all about the grown ups.

How does one talk about National Candy Day as though it is an homage to a single thing?  Candy comes in such wonderful, crazy varieties.  Many of us were first introduced to it at the knees of some elderly special person in our lives.  I think there is a rule that after your 65th birthday, you are required to install a candy dish in your home.  If you don’t, maybe they don’t let you collect CPP or something.  Because EVERY old person I knew (and know) had a candy dish.  It wasn’t the same kind of candy everywhere, but it was the unifying factor.  Clearly, its a subtle bribe to make the kids keep coming back, and an opportunity to take vengeance upon the parents by sending them home on a sugar high… but I think it may also be an attempt to start a race to toothlessness.  The old people are staring down their dentured future and are out to make sure they aren’t alone.

There may be BILLIONS of different kinds of candy in this world.  Individually wrapped, shaped like hot dogs, chewy, tacky, crunchy, shaped like male or female body parts… you name it, they make it.  It can actually get kind of absurd, really.

Of course, the single unifying factor is the main (almost sole) ingredient: sugar.  I am actually about half way through a book that traces the history of Sugar in the world.  It’s fascinating how huge a role sugar has played in the development of western society over the past 500 years.  In the beginning, it was an art form for the hosts of the richest spreads in France and England.  King Louis (pick a number) allegedly served a desert made of life-sized sugar manequins of his entire guest list (how weird is that?).  As with anything that began with the super-rich, popularization and democratization of the product drove the industry to unbelievable new heights.  The biggest single driver of the slave industry was not King Cotton, but King Cane.  It’s a bigger symbol of the profligate waste in western society than Hummers and fast cars, no matter what the greenies tell you. The real enemy of this world isn’t the soccer mom driving next to you applying makeup in her SUV in the middle of rush hour traffic… it’s the kid with the sweet tooth sitting behind you on the loser-cruiser popping skittles like they’re… well, skittles.  You really should check out the book – Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott. It’s a real eye-opener (that’s diplo-speak for “downer”).

Big Sugar (not the band) remains a powerful force in this world. Sugar interests remain the defining influence in some of the most beautiful and desperate places in the world. Vast tracts of land are devoted to its production, huge numbers of people remain under its thumb. Yet have you ever heard of the “sugar lobby”?  It’s there, it’s speaking, and it has untold economic, social and environmental (sugar producing plants are not the best carbon sinks – certainly not as proficient as the rainforests uprooted for sugar plantations!)impacts on our small blue world… But it never makes the news. Big oil is the new kid on the block. Sugar has been kicking mother earth’s ass for centuries. “The greatest feat the devil ever managed was to convince man that he did not exist.”

Sugar rules the world.  We don’t need it, but we WANT it. The industry is happy to deliver, and we are all just happy junkies getting a fix.  That delightful white powder (it might as well be cocaine – it’s almost as addictive, for some of us) in the form of candy, still holds a very very powerful sway in our society.  Think the criminal organizations rule the world?  Nope.  Next to big oil, big sugar is tops.  Think about it – every grocery store has almost an entire aisle devoted to candy, in addition to the racks at every register.  There are entire stores devoted to candy. And before you say “yeah, but there are liquor stores, and bakeries, each devoted to their own wares…” please note that each of those frequently HAS A CANDY SECTION.

So, this wasn’t really the hedonistic orgy of sugar-laden praise I expected (and was expected) to write. It’s a sober second thought about the most prevalent addiction in our society. Decided to go all sunday school preachy on you… Sorry, I will get out of your hair. But if you are still listening: Next time you want to do some small step to better mankind and mother earth, but you really need to drive somewhere, I suggest the following: take the buck or two you were about to add to your grocery bill for that sweet treat, and donate it to your local food bank. That’s my commitment for the rest of this year.

P.