I’m visiting my father in Durango, Colorado on the first leg of a 10-day Midwest family tour. I haven’t visited my father since 1999 and am long, long overdue.
My father knows I like to collect family recipes and he found a dusty recipe catalog with my grandmother’s favorite recipes. The recipes were written down on index cards and given to my mother as a wedding present forty years ago. I enjoy recipes not only for cooking but also for their history. My grandmother’s spartan recipe for hot water cornbread comes from the Great Depression. After the Great Depression, hot water cornbread recipes have more eggs, sugar, and other luxury ingredients. Todd’s family history is limited but based upon his family recipe for macaroni salad, I can see that the recipe originated from Poland as a sweeter version of the Jewish Kugel before his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. Like DNA, recipes are passed down from each generation. But unlike tracing bloodlines, recipes provide a glimpse into the cultural and historical background of relatives – something that is hard to see through last names and ancestry charts. For any linguists out there, it’s essentially recipe etymology.
My grandmother’s recipe box had WWII favorites like Miracle Whip and canned pineapple cakes. However, I was most curious about the praline recipe. Like biscuits and barbecue sauces, you can see when and where a praline recipe originated based upon whether it favors almonds vs. pecans, brown sugar vs. white sugar, cream vs. buttermilk, and even whether the nuts are halved or ground. However, my grandmother’s pralines index card was water-stained and one of the ingredients, baking soda, appeared to have been jotted down after-the-fact. The damage and side-note were bothersome. My grandmother moved 44 times while she raised my father so even with something as simple as baking soda, it was hard to know whether she picked up a more modern recipe that was about to veer into a praline crunch (popcorn balls and crunches add baking soda near the end), whether the side-note indicated that the baking soda was optional, or whether the baking soda was a critical part of an authentic praline recipe.
To add to my confusion, I didn’t understand why a praline recipe would use baking soda in the first step. From experimenting with brownies, I understood that baking soda affected a dough’s texture and stability. Without baking soda, brownies become molten cake. One of the greatest difficulties preparing pralines is the texture. To achieve a perfectly smooth, golden praline, you whip and aerate very hot caramel furiously in the last 2-3 minutes. However, baking soda reacts to heat and by the time the sugar has heated and caramelized, the effects of the baking soda should have worn off long before that critical whipping step.
It rained all day in Durango today – a perfect excuse to do a culinary experiment and unravel the praline baking soda mystery. I made two batches of pralines: 1) adding baking soda before caramelizing the sugar and 2) adding baking soda after caramelizing the sugar. All of the ingredients and temperatures – about 235°F (or 222 degrees if you’re at Durango’s 6500 foot elevation) – were the same. I hypothesized that the second version would have a better texture than the first.
The difference was dramatic and I was wrong. But, surprisingly, the difference was in the color and taste, not the texture. The recipe with the baking soda added at the beginning turned a lovely golden brown. The recipe with the baking soda added in the final step was paler. The taste was also different – the browner praline was much sweeter. My father validated that the sweeter version, the recipe with the baking soda at the beginning, was the family favorite. I was thrilled to have confidence in the recipe but it was also clear that I did not understand baking soda as well as I thought I did!
I know my praline whipping and spooning technique is not perfect. I whipped these a little bit too long – bear with me!
In an online search, I stumbled across Khymos.org’s baking soda article by Martin Lersch which pointed out the holes in my knowledge. Baking soda is not just a leavener. It also increases the pH level and accelerates caramelization (the Maillard reaction). By adding the baking soda at the beginning, the sugary mixture caramelized more quickly and reached a sweeter brown. When the baking soda was added near the end, the baking soda just foamed and sputtered out quickly without a chance to improve the caramelization. Though the ingredients were the same, the ordering of the baking soda made a huge difference. In this recipe, the baking soda was a caramelizing agent, not a leavening agent.
Praline history is murky but some research helps narrow down when and where my grandmother’s recipe originated:
- The first praline recipe originated in France and is believed to be a distant cousin of the Jordan almond. It spread throughout England, Belgium, and crossed the Atlantic when French settlers came to Louisiana in the 1700’s.
- Baking soda was popularized a hundred years after the first French praline in the 1850’s
- Milk was added to pralines after 1880 (pre-milk recipe I pre-milk recipe II
- Buttermilk was commercialized in the 1900’s
- Other praline recipes call for evaporated milk which wasn’t popularized until the 1920’s & 1930’s
- Geographically, brown sugar is preferred in New Orleans. In the late 1800’s, Louisiana produced sugar but lacked the refineries to process white sugar. As a result, Louisiana had more brown sugar than the East Coast and Midwest.
- Praline recipes with brown sugar rarely call for baking soda
From the above, I’d guess that someone outside Louisiana discovered that New Orleans pralines could be replicated with a more abundant white sugar if baking soda was added to accelerate the caramelization. My grandmother was born in 1919 in Colorado City, Texas. However, a Google search for “Texan buttermilk praline recipe” doesn’t yield anything similar. However, after a little bit of research, I discovered that my great-grandmother’s family was from Alabama. A Google search for “Alabama praline recipe” yields this very similar recipe. I’d hypothesize that this recipe is almost a hundred years old and there’s enough evidence to suggest that this is probably a recipe from my great-grandmother who died long before I was born.
What my grandmother and great-grandmother did not know is that baking soda is not just a magical ingredient for caramel confections. Martin Lersch’s blog also demonstrates how savory caramelized onions benefit from a pinch of baking soda. Amazingly, Martin Lersch was not able to find anyone adding baking soda to their caramelized onions prior to 2008! From a recipe etymology perspective, perhaps this means that future generations may date themselves with their more modern baking soda caramelized onion technique? It also makes one wonder what other baking soda applications we haven’t discovered.
I’m leaving my father tomorrow with lots of pralines as I head to Kansas City to visit my mother. The oldest recipe uncovered from that side of that family comes from the 1934 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cook Book for Cranberry Ice which is comically terse: “Cook cranberries and water 8 minutes then force through a sieve. Add sugar and lemon juice, and freeze.” Anyone who has attempted to force cranberries through a sieve will appreciate this recipe’s ridiculousness. Fortunately, food mills started reappearing in cooking stores in the 1990’s and this recipe has seen a resurgence on my family’s Thanksgiving table.