NEW ORLEANS — It's quite difficult to tell when autumn has arrived in Louisiana. Leaves don't change color, days are warm, and everyone is still sporting shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops.
But at my home there's always a telltale sound that clues me in when fall is upon the city. It can be heard emanating from the back porch.
It's the sound of my 89-year-old grandmother, Baba, crunching open the shells of hundreds of pecans, a ritual she has faithfully undertaken for what seems like at least forever. She sits for hours cracking shells and singing hymns (loudly), usually to our neighbors' amusement.
"The squirrels like my singing," she says. (I would never suggest that the furry critters are there for the nuts.)
All of the pecans go into Baba's locally famous desserts, which she hand-delivers to friends before Christmas. Most renowned are her pecan pies. But my absolute favorite is Baba's pralines - sweet, sugary-brown confections packed with pecans.
Pralines have been a New Orleans tradition since the early 1700s, when Louisiana was still a French territory. Legend has it that a French military officer, Count Plessis-Praslin, ordered his chef to concoct a simple dessert made of sugar and pecans, both prevalent locally grown crops.
Praline is thought to be derived from the count's last name, Praslin. I'm sure, however, that Count Praslin's pralines wouldn't hold a candle to Baba's. Her famous recipe was perfected nearly half a century ago when she owned and operated her own bakery.
The amusing thing about my grandmother and her holiday desserts is that she has never shelled out a penny for her precious pecans. "Too, too expensive," she complains.
Her devious method of acquiring pecans would drive the most resourceful squirrel nuts.
Starting around October, my grandmother rushes to answer the phone whenever it rings. If she recognizes the caller, she knows exactly what to say.
"Listen, honey," she says in a gruff voice. "You know anyone with a pecan tree?" Once they say yes - and they all do - she's got them. "You know, I'm getting old and can't get to the store anymore. I'd really appreciate if you brought me some pecans. And have 'em here by Friday."
They never refuse. And her suppliers wind up with a good deal. Baba keeps a list of who brought her pecans and rewards them with one of her delicious praline desserts.
1-1/4 cups finely crushed graham crackers
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 cup sugar (unrefined, like Sugar in the Raw is preferred)
1/4 cup melted butter.
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup brown sugar
5-1/2 ounce can evaporated milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup pecans (between 50 and 60 whole pecan halves for topping)
1 cup dark corn syrup
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
In mixing bowl, combine graham crackers, finely chopped pecans, and sugar. Stir in melted butter. Press mixture over bottom of 9-inch springform pan.
Bake for 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees F.
Meanwhile, beat together cream cheese, brown sugar, evaporated milk, flour, and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time and beat until blended. Pour into baked crust.
Bake in 350-degree F. oven for 50 minutes.
Cool in pan for 45 minutes before unmolding. (With a knife, cut around cake to release from pan.) Arrange pecan halves on top of cheesecake.
To make sauce: Combine corn syrup, cornstarch, and brown sugar in a small saucepan. Cook until thick and bubbly, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Set aside to cool somewhat before spooning sauce over cheesecake.
Serves 8 to 10.
1 cup whipping cream
1 (1-pound) box light brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine cream and brown sugar in a glass bowl. Microwave for 14 minutes. Remove; add butter, pecans, and vanilla. Stir. Drop about 2 tablespoons of mixture on buttered wax paper 3 inches apart. Let cool.
Combine all ingredients and cook over medium heat. Boil to the softball stage (238 to 240 degrees F. on a candy thermometer.) Drop about 2 tablespoons of mixture on buttered wax paper 3 inches apart.
Makes 25 to 30 pralines.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society