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February 11, 1988|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

This next week promises to be a true biggie in New Orleans. As everywhere, that city of romance will be celebrating the most romantic day of the year, Valentine's Day, on Sunday and, in addition, New Orleans's famous Mardi Gras carnival period will be reaching it's climax on Tuesday. It definitely is a time when parties and romance will dominate.

Sweets, of course, play a big role in almost all such celebrations wherever they are held. Candy and other confections are favorite gift choices among friends and lovers, so it seems not inappropriate to suggest that perhaps some of New Orleans' famous pralines might be more than welcome as romantic Valentine tokens elsewhere--such as here.

Pralines were first made in France, with credit for their origination generally being given to the chef to Cesar du Plessis-Praslin, a diplomat who later became the Duc de Choiseul during the reign of Louis XII.

The candy as we know it today, however, is decidedly Americanized. The original French version was made with almonds and white sugar. Food-loving Creoles who settled in Louisiana and its environs adapted the basic recipe to more readily available products, however. Thus it is that the praline for which the South is justly famous usually features brown sugar and pecans rather than the ingredients in the original French confections.

In the years since pralines first became identified with that part of the South, local cooks have taken delight in adding their own personal touches to these sugary sweets. Essentially a mixture of brown sugar, milk or cream and butter into which a handful of toasted pecans is tossed, many modern-day praline versions would undoubtedly put the Duc's good chef in a state of shock.

Some praline specialists today add fresh coconut to their candy. Others call for buttermilk or evaporated milk in place of the usual rich cream. Some cooks add chocolate or cocoa. Some add bourbon or rum. And some cooks, believe it or not, create butterscotch pralines using a package of butterscotch pudding mix as a major ingredient. In fact, poetic license seems to be the order of the day when it comes to making pralines 1988-style.

Whatever today's cooks choose to do to turn out a batch of sinfully rich pralines, most seem to have some helpful little tricks that assure one of a successful product.

One tip that surfaced frequently was a surefire method for cooling the finished candies. Some prefer to use foil to drop the candies on; others prefer to place a piece of wax paper over four or five thicknesses of newspaper. Either method will assure easy removal when the candies have cooled.

The accompanying recipes were collected from various sources in the New Orleans area. Some are personal recipes from good cooks. Others came from chefs and regional books on Creole and Cajun cooking. All are guaranteed to add calories but taste divine. But, after all, if one can't splurge a bit on Valentine's Day, it's hardly worth celebrating.

Food styling by Donna Deane and Minnie Bernardino. Mardi gras mask from California Floral.

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