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2012-09-13

The proof is in the pralines

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

I'll be the first to admit it. I've had an on-again-off-again relationship with pralines that began decades ago in NOLA. When biting into one of those sugary, tender, crunchy confections, I always hope for the best, but sadly - more times than not - am doomed to disappointment.

That was until I hit the Lakehills Civic Center on Thursday, Sept. 6, to chronicle a portion of the food preparation for the up and coming 32nd annual Cajun Festival and Great Gumbo Cook-Off in Lakehills. As it turned out, I got me some lagniappe.

The volunteers were making pralines.

For the uninitiated, an excellent praline is one of life's largest pleasures.

A southern delight, pralines combine pecans with a rich cooked "sauce," made from sugar, corn syrup, cream, butter and vanilla. "The secret," said Barbara Engel, "is to add the pecans to the candy as it's cooking. That way the flavor of the nuts goes all the way through."

Cathe Swafford was in charge of the myriad helpers in the kitchen of the Civic Center. According to Swafford, 800 pralines are needed to assuage the sweet teeth of hungry festival participants - which means, too many cooks didn't spoil the broth.

Engel and husband Bob Caswell, prime movers behind the Cajun Festival and gumbo cook-off, happened across the praline recipe in Louisiana 20 years ago.

"While attending the Festival Des Acadiens (a celebration of Cajun culture) in Lafayette, I became aware of this wonderful aroma," Engel recalled. The pair followed their noses and discovered a treasure.

"They were cooking pecan pralines onsite and they smelled wonderful," she said. Apparently the rapidly forming lines made it difficult for cooks to keep with the demand for the toothsome treats.

"I noticed a tiny little lady whirling around the area directing the cooking, telling people how to stir and what to add to the pots. She was obviously the boss," Engel said. She and Caswell finally made it to the head of the line and purchased some pralines.

"They were the best pralines I ever had eaten. I needed the recipe," Engel said. Approaching the boss lady, Engel explained that she would like to have the recipe to make the candy for the Cajun Festival in Lakehills. "That lady was so generous. She gave it to me and we've been using it ever since.

Engel went on to say to the sumptuous recipe is included in the Cajun Cookbook sold at the festival.

In fact, that's true for most of the homemade Cajun fare available at the festival. For the uninitiated, that would include meat, crawfish and pecan pies; crawfish étouffée; red beans and rice; jambalaya; boudin; bread pudding with whiskey sauce and more if you can believe it!

"Everything tastes so good because we make it ourselves using only the best ingredients," Engle said. "We never cut corners. For instance, we put butter and evaporated milk in the pralines. That's what makes the candy smooth and rich and not grainy. Some people actually add water to their pralines. Can you imagine?"

Smooth and rich, well, I can attest to Engel's assessment. Before going on my way, I wanted to make sure that these pralines were just as good as the good ones I stumbled across in New Orleans all those years ago. Let me tell you, chere, they are! However, just to be certain sure I ate two.

Now, I'm wondering how many of those delectable confections I have to purchase on Saturday, Sept. 22, to take me through to Cajun Fest 2013.

The 32nd annual Cajun Festival takes place from 11 am until 10 pm, Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Lakehills Civic Center, 11225 Park Road 37.

Admission is $10 with children ages 10 years and under admitted free.

For more information, visit

cajunfestival-medinalake.com



Pictured: Linda Bachmeier and Mary McMullen chatted while the praline "sauce" reached the softball state necessary for a rich, creamy texture.

Here they are, folks, just 800 of the many reasons to attend the 32nd annual Cajun Festival on Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Lakehills Civic Center.

Barbara Brischetto loaded piping hot pralines onto a tray to cook.