Homemade Pralines

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No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a sampling of pralines—those intensely sweet disks of sugar, butter, and pecans. I learned this during my first visit to New Orleans with Matt a couple of years ago. Now the question that is open for debate is exactly where you want to buy these little delicacies. My vote goes to Southern Candymakers, which is a family-owned store in the French Quarter. When you walk in the door off of Decatur Street you are immediately greeted with the vision of fresh pralines being scooped onto a marble slab. Only two words can describe these candies. Simply… decadent.

But alas, everything that you can purchase in the store can also be homemade. And for the fourth and final installment of my February Homemade Baking Challenge, I’ll be showing you how to make these little delicacies right in your own kitchen. Very similar to the homemade caramels that I shared with you earlier this month, the basis for pralines consists of sugar, butter, and milk. I think that often making candy can be intimidating and that’s why we default to buying it in the store. I’m here to demystify the process and show you how it can easily be done in your kitchen.

For those that are interested in a little history, French settlers brought the recipe for pralines to Louisiana. Although the original French recipe called for almonds, New Orleans chefs substituted pecans and added cream to thicken the confection, thus creating what became known throughout the American South as the praline.

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Homemade Pralines Recipe
Makes approximately 20 candies
Adapted from All Recipes

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups toasted pecans
1 1/2 cups white sugar
3/8 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions
In large saucepan over medium heat, combine pecans, sugar, butter, brown sugar, milk and vanilla. Heat to between 234 and 240 degrees F (112 to 116 degrees C), or until a small amount of syrup dropped into cold water forms a soft ball that flattens when removed from the water and placed on a flat surface.

When your mixture has reached the desired temperature, remove from heat and transfer hot pan to an ice bath. Beat the mixture until light in color and thick, then spoon (using two spoons) onto a baking sheet lined with wax or parchment paper brushed with butter. Let cool, then peel wax paper or parchment away from the pralines.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
Try not to stir the syrup after it starts boiling to prevent early crystallization. If you’re tempted to scrape down the sides, don’t do it — instead, cover the pot a couple of minutes and let the steam wash them down.

And that wraps up my February Homemade Baking Challenge! Feel free to check out my Homemade CaramelsHomemade Marshmallows, or Homemade Ritz Crackers if you’re interested in making some treats of your own!

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Homemade Ritz Crackers

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In the third installment of my February Homemade Baking Challenge, I am sharing a Ritz cracker recipe that is so simple you won’t have to guess at any of the ingredients. During the course of this baking challenge I’ve learned that you literally can make anything you see in a prepackaged box or bag at the grocery store. The shapes and sizes might not be as perfect but I can guarantee that what you make will taste better!

Ritz Crackers are a brand of snack crackers introduced by Nabisco in 1934. They are circular in shape, salted lightly on one side, and have a small scalloped edge. Since establishing their empire in the 1930’s the classic cookie has grown in such popularity that you can now follow Ritz crackers on Twitter and Facebook. The question that no one wants to ask is exactly what are the ingredients that make these cookies so delicious?! I set out to make a simpler and cleaner version of these cookies last weekend.

This past Sunday was yet another snowy day here in Ann Arbor. As a Minnesotan at heart I really do love winter, but it seems as if this year has been particularly cold and snowy. As I sat inside curled up, I actually found myself looking forward to the warmth and sunshine of spring. If only there was a fast forward button for these next few months! Regardless, there’s nothing better than warming up the house with the smell of baked goods on a chilly winter day. These crackers are such a cinch that you can have them ready in less than an hour!

Homemade Ritz Crackers
Adapted from Epicurious

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Ingredients
2 cups flour, all-purpose
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoon butter, unsalted, cold
2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup water
3 tablespoons olive oil, for garnish
1 tablespoon salt, for garnish

Directions
Preheat oven to 400 F.

Put the flour, baking powder, sugar, and 1/2 tsp of salt in the food processor. Pulse to combine. Add cold butter a few small pats at a time, and pulse to combine. Add olive oil. Pulse to combine. Add water a little bit at a time. Pulse to combine after each addition. The dough should start to form a ball.

Roll dough out as thin as you can. Use cookie cutters to cut the dough out. You can make them Ritz-shaped or any shape that you like. Poke holes in the dough in the Ritz pattern or any pattern you like.

Bake the crackers on a parchment-lined baking sheet for ten minutes or until the crackers just begin to brown. As soon as you remove the crackers from the oven, brush them with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
Keep a close eye on your crackers to make sure they don’t bake for too long. Depending on how thin your dough is you made need to take a couple minutes off the baking times.

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Homemade Marshmallows

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In the second installment of this month’s Homemade Baking Challenge, I have demystified the science that goes into making marshmallows. The miracle of homemade marshmallows — the amazing alchemy of gelatin and hot sugar syrup — is a sight to behold. And once you make them, you’ll never go back to jet-puffed marshmallows in plastic bags again.

When I originally made these marshmallows I was on a sugar high for the entire weekend. Once I ate one, I couldn’t stop myself from devouring handfuls of more. To help yourself resist this urge, try packaging these marshmallows as a gift for friends. There is nothing better than curling up on a chilly day with a cup of hot chocolate with real homemade marshmallows.

The recipe in itself is actually pretty fool proof. However, you will definitely want a stand mixer if you decide to attempt these marshmallows. The mixture has to whip for about 15 minutes until it comes together and that’s not something you want to do with a hand mixer. Make sure to be careful when you begin to whip the hot sugar syrup as you don’t want any to get on your hands or arms. But once it’s cooled down, watching all the ingredients come to together is a fun activity that the entire family can enjoy!

Homemade Marshmallows Recipe
Makes approximately 9 dozen marshmallows
Adapted from Alton Brown

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Ingredients
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup ice cold water, divided
12 ounces granulated sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
Nonstick spray

Directions
Place the gelatin into the bowl of a stand mixer along with 1/2 cup of the water. Have the whisk attachment standing by.

In a small saucepan combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place over medium high heat, cover and allow to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

Turn the mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the vanilla during the last minute of whipping. While the mixture is whipping prepare the pans as follows.

Combine the confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly spray a 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Add the sugar and cornstarch mixture and move around to completely coat the bottom and sides of the pan. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.

When ready, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining mixture, using additional if necessary. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
If you’d like to make cocoa marshmallows, whip in 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder. This makes a great addition when you pair some homemade marshmallows with some hot chocolate for a present.

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Homemade Caramels

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Everything is better homemade, wouldn’t you agree?

This month I’ve decided to take the concept that everything is better homemade and turn it into a four-part baking series. My plan is to make homemade versions of candies and snacks that you would typically buy at the grocery store. I’ve had this idea bouncing around in my head for a while now, and decided there was no better time to share it with you than this month! I think you’ll enjoy all the recipes in this baking challenge for the simple reason that it’s fun to put your own personal twist on a classic item.

For the first installment this week, I’ll be showing you how to make homemade caramels. I love making (and eating) homemade candy throughout the holidays. In fact, this year I made these caramels as Christmas gifts for some of my friends and family. One kitchen item you definitely want to invest in when making these caramels is a good candy thermometer. If you’re trying to use a standard meat thermometer you’ll have problems. With a good thermometer and a little patience, these candies are a cinch to make and will turn out 100 times better than what you could buy at the store.

Homemade Caramels Recipe
Makes 4 to 5 dozen caramels
Adapted from Allrecipes

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Ingredients
2 cups white sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1 cup evaporated milk
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 cup butter
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions
Grease a 12×15 inch pan. In a medium-size pot, combine sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, evaporated milk, whipping cream, and butter. Monitor the heat of the mixture with a candy thermometer while stirring. When the thermometer reaches 250 degrees F (120 degrees C) remove the pot from the heat.

Stir in vanilla. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan and let the mixture cool completely. When cooled cut the Carmel into small squares and wrap them in wax paper for storage.

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Heather’s Helpful Hints
When cooking the caramels use a large pot because the mixture actually triples in size during the cooking phase. Also note that it will take from 30 to 40 minutes to get the caramel to 250 degrees—be patient!

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