This past New Years, my husband made a Bûche de Noel (Christmas log) that we hoped would be reminiscent of the kind of desserts one buys in a fine French pastry shop. One of the hallmarks of French desserts and candies is the use of hazelnut, and the recipe he found offered a variety of layers, each with its own hazelnutty spin.
When I realized the scope of this recipe, however, I was reminded of why French culinary technique has the uptight reputation it does. There were caramel syrups that had to be brought to a precise temperature but not a degree more, double boilers with chocolate ganache, Italian meringues that required us to talk in hush tones for fear they would lose their fluff, and on and on. Just the decoration was more work than I would normally put into a whole meal. I secretly worried that by the end, if it burned, collapsed, or stuck to the pan, my husband might have a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, it came out perfect, and each piece boasted extravagant rows of varying textures and flavors: crunchy, creamy, airy, dense, chocolatey, nutty, everything one could want from a dessert.
I tell this story not because I am going to suggest you make the bûche, because I still feel that only the most motivated and energetic cooks should undertake such a project, but because we discovered a secret French ingredient that makes anything taste amazing. Unfortunately, it’s not generally available in stores over here, but it’s not actually that hard to produce. It’s called praliné, and it’s a paste made simply from nuts and caramelized sugar. Once made, it keeps for weeks or even months and can be eaten as a spread or used to make other things. If you pair it with chocolate, it is a match made in heaven, and it gives everything the ineffable taste of French confections.
With some of the leftover praliné from the cake, I made a spread or icing that came out so delicious and reminiscent of French-style desserts that I needed to share it. I tried cutting corners by using candied nuts from the bulk bins, but it isn’t the same at all. So this does require the preliminary preparation of the praliné paste, but it really isn’t all that terribly hard, and the result is a deep, caramelized, complex flavor that is truly unique. Try using it to make an icing for cupcakes: I made a basic cupcake from a mix, with the addition of 1/3 cup almond butter in place of some of the oil. This ties the nutty flavor together, but you could just as well use vanilla or chocolate cupcakes, a thin cookie, or anything you want. As a filling for cannolis or filo pastries, it would be fantastic! Make it for your next birthday party and I promise you won’t be disappointed!
For the icing:
- 2 tbsp praliné (recipe follows)
- 2 tbsp almond butter
- 1 tbsp chocolate chips, melted in the microwave
- 1/2 stick butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Blend all ingredients with hand held blender or whisk until lightened in color and well-integrated.
Praline Recipe: (credit goes to the blog La Cuisine de Bernard- photos of each step, along with the recipe in French, can be found at: http://lesrecettesdebernard.blogspot.com/2010/01/praline-en-pate-ou-pralin-en-poudre.html)
- 8-10 oz. hazelnuts or a combination of hazelnuts and almonds
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
Put the sugar and water over a medium heat in a nonstick pan. Allow to boil without disturbing until a thick, bubbly syrup is achieved. Add the nuts and stir to distribute the syrup. The sugar will crystalize at this point, and then will slowly return to syrup form as you continue to cook. Once the nuts and syrup turn a rich golden brown color (watch out! the line between caramelizing and burning is thin!!) remove promptly and pour out onto a buttered silpat or nonstick baking sheet. Allow to cool completely. Finally, break candy into small chunks and place in the bowl of a food processor. Process for about 5 minutes until a smooth paste forms. Put the paste into a sealed container to store. Does not need to be refrigerated.