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My Southern Praline Cookies

Southern Praline Cookies
    Photo Credit by FrenchQuarter.com

    This month, I was fortunate to be interviewed by ChefUniforms.com and profiled me as chef of the month.  How exciting!  So I decided to take their Que and post a few of my favorite recipes to my readers, bakers, and fellow chefs.  

    My pralines are to die for so I thought I would start with these little southern nuggets to start. I lived in Atlanta Georgia for a spell where I worked my buns off as an assistant pastry chef for a restaurant group from 1996-2001!  I learned SO much and one of the recipes I perfected to my liking are the famous southern cookies.  

    Nothing like sugar, cream, butter and nuts unite and transform into pralines. Delish! Even better when dipped in chocolate.

    ~for about 2 dozen

    Ingredients:

    2 cups light brown sugar
    ½ cup evaporated milk
    ¼ cup unsalted butter
    2 ½ cups pecans, halves or pieces
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    Directions:

    1. Combine light brown sugar and evaporated milk in a sauce pan, boil, bring to soft ball stage.*
    2. Add butter and pecans, bring back to a soft ball stage while stirring.
    3. Remove from heat, add vanilla and beat until mixture begins to thicken.
    4. Drop by teaspoons on sheet pans lined with silicone mats.
    5. Let set and cool before serving; store in air-tight container.

    *Soft Ball Stage for Candy Making using cold water test: 235 F to 240 F (118 C to 120 C)
    A small amount of syrup dropped into cold water forms a soft, flexible ball, but flattens like a pancake after a few moments in your hand.

    -Chef Alekka

     

    My Interview As - Chef Of The Month by Chef Uniforms

    Chef Alekka-Give Me Some Sugar

     

    I am honored to be picked by Chef Uniforms to be their Chef of the month for February!

    Chef Alekka Sweeney February Chef of the Month Article

    1. Birthplace

    I was born in Naples, Italy. But I am American and so are both of my parents. My dad was in the Navy and stationed there so I was born there.

     2. Where do you work and where are you based?

    I am the owner of my shop called Give Me Some Sugar that is located in Roscoe Village, Chicago. But it is not a bakery, it is a school where we teach classes on baking and pastry. I started the company 10 years ago. The first 2 years were in classes in client’s homes so that I could build up a client base and test recipes. This was right at the beginning of shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss. Back then my car was basically a mobile cake decorating machine; it was filled with buttercream. So eventually I had my real estate agent look for places. I visited so many places but then I found it. When I walked into the shop, I had a “this is it,” moment and we’ve been at this location for the past 8 years.

    3. What is your favorite kitchen tool in creating your masterpieces/dishes?

    I can’t live without an offset spatula, serrated knife, and the mixer I’ve had since I was sixteen.

    4. What is your sharpest sense out of all the 5 senses?

    Smell.

    5. What advice would you offer for aspiring chefs?

    It is a tough industry to be in. You have to work nights, weekends, and holidays. But my best piece of advice is to find the pastry chefs or chefs that you admire and respect. Try and work for them, even if it is for free and during that time learn as much as you can. Before you land on the place you want to work forever, the best thing you can do is learn and get as much as experience as possible.

    I’ve worked in hotels, bakeries, corporations, big business, small business. The culmination of doing all of that led me to where I am today.

    Make sure to get your hands in everything, don’t settle for one thing. Work for as many people as you can so you learn new perspectives and different ways of doing things. And be prepared to stand on your feet for a long time, invest in your shoes.

    6. What is one culinary tip every chef should know and perfect?

    Measuring properly. I see a lot of people using the wrong measure tool. Even on TV, I see people measuring dry ingredients with a tool that is for liquids. It is my pet peeve. First understand your recipes, master the basics, and make sure to read the recipes correctly. Baking is very precise.  

    7. What does good food mean to you?

    I think the pastries I gravitate towards are the ones that make me think of my mom and being at home. I grew up eating my mom’s homemade bread. My mom saves water from mashed potatoes and makes potato bread, it is amazing. So I gravitate towards foods and desserts that are farm to table.

    8. What features are important to you when selecting a Chef Coat? (particular fabric, style, sleeve length, pockets)

    I am so happy the industry is coming out with chef coats for women. Cuts for women that show that you have a waist. I also like front and side pockets to hold my must have my sharpie. I really like the women’s style of pants and chef coats. Especially not having to look like a potato sack. The features I like are having something that is both flattering and functional.

    9. Favorite ingredient to work with?

    Chocolate. I really like tempering chocolate and making chocolate candies. I kind of had to teach myself. I used to work at a candy place in Chicago and I really had to learn myself. At that job, I had to temper white chocolate in the middle of the summer. I just kept playing with it over and over again and now they call me the chocolate tempering queen.

    10. Favorite City to dine out in?

    Chicago first and then Pittsburgh is a close second. Pittsburgh is getting up there. Chicago is the one I like the most. You can get any kind of food here from any culture. I like that Chicago has amazing hole in the wall restaurants. It doesn’t have to be super fancy but you can go down an alley and in a scary door and the food is amazing. Chicago is a city that can satisfy any type of craving.

    11. Best Dish you have ever made?

    It’s really simple. I really want to blow you away with a fancy French pastry. But whenever I go to my friend’s house or a party they always ask that I make chocolate espresso brownies. They are really fudgy and rich. 

    12. Person you would most like to cook for?

    Dorie Greenspan. I really respect and admire her career path. She just released Dories Cookies and it is something like her 12th baking book. She’s comparable to Martha Stuart. She was before all the food bloggers, Instagram and Twitter accounts. She just seems so nice and super sweet and I just would like to hang out with her and bake cookies all day.

    13. What made you decide to become a chef?

    Two different versions of this story. I will tell you the real one and you can decide whether it is appropriate to publish. I was 24 at that time and it was 1997. After you go to culinary school, you have to do an internship somewhere. Normally once you are done with school most people go back to their internship and work there. I did that as well. The pastry chef at the time was involved with the owner’s daughter and he had a problem with alcohol. One day, they didn’t know where he went and they needed a wedding cake made in two days. They turned to me. This was in 1997 remember, there is no google, no videos, no internet to help me.

    I turned to Martha Stuart’s wedding cake books. I always say it chose me, I didn’t choose it.

    But I have a very statistical mind and I follow formulas and recipes very well. It was the best thing for me. Baking is strict but it still leaves room for creativity. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

    Final note:

    It was a series of events that led me to work and staying in this industry. First, it is a great industry to work in and there are so many outlets where you can work in as a chef. You can travel, be a personal chef, baker, own a business or restaurant.

    And this industry and food will never be replaced by a robot. Food is how you show your love. I have met people and all the places I have got to go are because this industry helped me get there.

    **You can visit Chef Uniforms to learn more about my interview and about Chef Uniforms products.

    Top Three Pie Making Tips!

    This is Nona, my Mother's Mother and the woman who taught me how to make a pie from scratch.

    She was a feisty woman who lived through two husbands, a fire that destroyed her home and at age 50 she donated her liver to her only son. After her second husband passed she lived independently in her home for the rest of her life. Needless to say my sisters and I respect and admire the woman she was and what she taught us.

    I loved being in the kitchen with her. She was a true southern woman and her food reflected that. Her classic Lemon Meringue and Chocolate pies made it into her Baptist Church Cookbook-I did not know this until years later-she was not a boastful person.

    I learned from her how to make a pie dough with lard from the local Piggly Wiggly and egg white meringue that we piled a mile high and let get golden brown in the oven.

    I reference her in every pie class since everything I know I learned from her. 

     1) Ice Ice Baby

    Ice water mixed with flour gives pie crust dough the structure it needs to hold together. The amount of water you use is critical; too much, and you've made a sticky mess. Too little, and the crust won't hold together, or will crack around the edges as you roll. I also like to make sure the rest of my ingredients are ice cold to slow down the production of the gluten in the flour.

    2) Who You Calling Fat?

    Which ever fat you use make sure it is COLD. This will make the dough easier to handle and will result in a flakier pie crust. Large chunks of fat are good in the crust. The water in the butter will create steam while baking and will result in tender flaky crust.

    3) Drop Some Acid

    I used to think for years that adding a little acid (lemon juice, buttermilk, vodka) stopped the production of the gluten in the flour and yielded a flakier pie crust. Then I read this article and this one. So I save my vodka for my weekend beverages.

    Happy Pie Dough Making!!

    Chef Alekka

     

     

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