Destined for Greatness

baking Jake Treats.png

At our annual Sunday-after-Thanksgiving brunch, my neighbor described a sub-standard canelé he recently had.  It was chewy! he said. And short! His indignation would have been funny if not for being so sincere.

That’s because they used the wrong flour, and probably warm butter, I told him.

It’s so cool that you know that! he says, to which I shrug. Put a less than perfect canelé in front of me and I can tell you not only exactly what went wrong, but when where and how.  It’s my job, after all.

If names are destiny then I suppose it’s no surprise that I ended up being a Miller with a bakery.  Though of course I’m not sure one can claim the title of baker if one bakes only one thing, which in my case is the canelé, which makes me a canulier, which is French for “obsessive personality that can only get interested in things as difficult as humanly possible“.

copper-canele-moldI kid!  “Fluted” is the actual meaning of “canelé” after the design of the traditional copper molds used to make them.

So what is a canelé is a question I hear weekly even after all these years of pumping thousands into the pastryosphere.  People say it’s a small world but it’s large enough  to keep all those poor cupcake eaters in the dark about canelés, a situation we are striving to correct because if you’ve tasted a canelé then you know that by all rights it should be at least as plentiful not to mention as celebrated as the much more ordinary (and often disappointing) cupcake.

I have no doubt that it will be, as soon as it can get past the not-insignificant-detriments of being hard to say and even harder to make. Most bakers will not even try because the chaos and bloodshed would be sure to put them out of business, if the constant canelés shortages did not.

simplicity

Like anything worth mastering, canelés (pronounced can-uh-LAY, rhymes with yay) take practice.  Do not be fooled by the simplicty of the ingredients, which make for a nice mis-en-place picture that is totally misleading.  The picture above, courtesy of ChefSteps, seems to be saying: let’s whip up something delicious with these simple whole ingredients!

But if you are really paying attention you can detect the pathos inherent in any canelés making endeavor – for example, the rum for this recipe is only a few scant tablespoons, yet this cook has the entire bottle on the table.  That’s because he’ll be doing shots by the third ruined batch and chugging directly from the neck of the bottle by the fifth ruined batch.  In fact I’ll bet if you look under the prep table  you will find an entire case of rum.

Notice also that this photograph is clearly of a man.  “Pastry so easy – even a guy can master it!” they seem to be saying.  But note that his face is not visible, and that my friends is because it is  tear-streaked, red-splotched and distorted with rage.  You can sense the tension in his hands, which are ready to curl into fists.

ingredientsOnce you  know what you’re doing , making canelés is not that difficult, as long as you are willing to show due respect to the most important ingredient, which is time.

The sugar, butter, milk, flour and vanilla will always reliably give you a great taste, but ultimately, the ingredient of time is what gives the canelé its contrasting textures of tender custard inside and crusty caramelization outside – the heart of its caneléosity.

If you are new to making canelés the bad news is you will make many mistakes and they will  be ugly.  Some will be caved in, some will lean drunkenly.  The exteriors may look rough and pebbled, the crowns lack crisp defined peaks, the center may be collapsed and broken.  You will feel humiliated by their hideousness, until you eat one…then the full despair will wash over you because it will be delicious. Totally unservable, but otherwise really excellent.  Too bad after all that work only you will know.

French pastry making is unforgiving but the penance of eating your sins and starting over with a clean slate could make a religious zealot out of anyone.  With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you avoid the most common errors in pursuing canelé perfection:

Tip One: Don’t use melted butter, or even room temperature butter.  Use cold butter, which minimizes absorption into the flour, thus helping with gluten formation and the development of structure. The end result is a better texture – custard that is dense and moist but at the same time light and fluffy.

Whether to use salted or unsalted butter depends on the humidity, frankly. You’ll have to experiment and decide for yourself.

Tkaf.pngip Two: Use the right flour type.  Super chewy exteriors herald the wrong flour.  All purpose should really be renamed All Purpose Except For Pastry, which requires pastry flour except when it requires cake flour.  For canelés, a pastry, use cake flour, or live to chewily regret it.

There is only one brand of flour to use if you care about texture, and that is King Arthur flour.  You may be tempted to use another brand and think you got away with it but by the texture of your custard your substandard flour shall be known.  I can tell a canelé made with Giusto’s flour from a canelé made with King Arthur flour just by looking at it.

Tip Three: The milk must be heated to a precise 183 degrees Fahrenheit.   Use a thermometer. Don’t let it get hotter than 183.  If you step away to get a glass of water or to gaze out the kitchen window at the pigeons setting up their annual nest in the downspout of the house next door, and then come back and the thermometer reads 187,  and you just go ahead with the batter making as though a colossal error has not just been made, you may think you are getting away with something but  but you are not.

Canelés are patient, far more patient than you can ever hope to be. They will not reveal the too-hot milk mistake until the very end.   You will watch their bottoms brown evenly and your mind will whisper yes, you got away with it.  They will fall out of their molds beautifully and you will feel even more confident that you did, indeed, get away with it.

Then you will bite into one and your fecklessness with the milk will be revealed, immediately and incontrovertibly: those four extra degrees will manifest themselves as a cakey like texture which in and of itself isn’t the end of the world but let’s be frank: cake-like when one is expecting custard-like is like naugahyde when one is expecting leather, like wool when one is expecting silk.

Tip Four:  Use baker’s sugar, also called caster’s sugar.  NOT powdered sugar, not granulated sugar, not sugar in the raw.   You want the ultra fine granules of baker’s sugar  – the  tiny consistent grain size mixes, blends and melts more evenly, for a more consistent and beautiful caramelization.

Tip Five: If you make a chocolate chunk canelé and use Ghirardelli chocolate,  your canelés will develop a waxy sheen on the crowns after about 12 hours, because the chocolate in question has a higher paraffin content.  If you want your canelés to stay elegantly shiny in any temperature, use French or Belgian chocolate.

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Tip Six:  Purists will try to tell you otherwise but I’m here to tell you silicone molds can produce a crunchy exterior, as long as you bake in a convection  – preferably rotating – oven.

The REAL Secret
The secret of making a perfect canelé is a  combination of the right ingredients, the right equipment, and the right amount of time….and most importantly of all, the willingness to spend that time in the pursuit of perfection.  Most people cannot find or make the time, which will make an accomplished canulier all the more dear!

When Your Husband Sits Next To A Goddess & Other Rainy Day Baker Thoughts

rainy

It’s a rainy day and so I tried to cut the morning walk short but Jake wasn’t having any of it.  Come on, I say to him, and walk a few steps towards home.  He gives me a long stare and then glances left.   Smart dog.  Right is the park; forward is another park and both are out of the question and anyway there will be no dogs or people, only wet and mud.  Left is merely the long way home and of course I relent cursing mildly because he doesn’t try this shit with the husband, whom Jake adores more than life itself; theirs is a bromance for the ages, that’s what Jake thinks or anyway it looks like he thinks that what with all the worshipful gazing and instant obedience.  To be fair I get my share of worshipful gazes too or at least my right hand does,  The Food Bearing Hand as Jake  clearly thinks of it.  He always glances at the hand before my face which I try not to be offended by because being known in a dog’s heart as The Bringer of Food is not a bad thing at all and inspires its own dogged loyalties.  Jake  doesn’t like to be out in heavy rain but today’s umbrella defying slanty-misty-blowy affair suits him just fine.  He stands at the top of Pacific Avenue and waits as I trudge up the hill and he cuts a fine figure silhouetted against the sunrise, ears back, tail and nose up and into the tricky wind.  A construction worker hops out of his truck and Jake greets him enthusiastically and  you can see how it is just making this guy’s day, the two of them do a little dance of hello-how-are-you-aren’t-we-good-boys and by now my wool hat has reached the 50% rain saturation point but the air is relatively warm and I like the whispery sound the tires make on the wet pavement which is shiny with the reflected sunrise.  I am grateful not to be making deliveries on such a day when the narrow arteries of the FIDI are choked with delivery vehicles and those speedy little DPT munchkin cars.  green spider.pngOn the way home we pass the newly finished modern house and they have perched on the roof a huge blow up black and neon green spider wearing sunglasses with not eight but only two eyeholes just going to prove that you can spend a lot of money and still not have any taste.   On the other hand motion detectors cause it to actually turns its enormous head at our approach which startles me but this small bit of effectiveness does not redeem it anymore than Melania Trump  redeems Donald. Despite the stresses of running a 7,000 square foot bakery being inside of one is always nice on a day like today, it’s cold and blowy outside but inside it’s warm as a giant womb with nice dry hot vanilla scented air wooshing out of the convection ovens.   The wind rattles the metal floor to ceiling garage doors like zombies dying to get inside, where all is competing radio stations and the banging rattling clanking of big machinery doing its big jobs, the dog curled up on his bed in the corner of the office for once not begging to go visit all of his friends in this South San Francisco neighborhood of warehouse businesses filled with restaurants, caterers, car repair and paint companies, dry cleaners and based on the smell over by the RV storage lots, a shit ton of cannabis.We turn the final corner of the walk and the rain picks up and I channel the husband and command-not-ask Jake to come now please monsieur and also take off running because he can’t resist following me when I run and together we race up the 50 steps in front of the house and not for the first time I congratulate myself on finding a place that requires one to climb a mountain at the end of a long backbreaking day because every athlete knows the real training doesn’t begin until you are already tired. The husband calls from South Dakota because rain in the city means snow in the mountains. He is a powder hound through and through so you can imagine how I felt when he sent the text from the airport that every woman dreads “Hey guess what I am sitting next to Lindsey Vonn”  because even I am attracted to Lindsey Vonn because who could compare to Lindsey fucking Vonn she is a Viking goddess who is also a big mountain skier and she was on a box of Wheaties for God’s sake (which I bought. and ate.)  and I pray although I am an atheist that she is dumb as a rock because the husband will find this disappointing and demote her from Goddess to ordinary mortal hotness.  She looks a bit masculine the husband texts and I know he is just trying to make me feel better but I appreciate the gesture nonetheless because he also knows that I am looking at that magazine in the rack that has Lindsey posing in a bikini and skis in a real thigh burner of a position and she is fucking Hotness itself and then he texts that she wears more makeup than he expected jake sings.pngand also has a cocker spaniel and me and my make-up less face relax because no cocker spaniel can hold a candle to a chocolate labrador once they’ve gotten inside your heart they are written there forever and I’ve already texted the husband that if he leaves me for Lindsey I am taking Jake as the consolation prize which would only be fair.  The phone rings and it is Bill saying the new kitchen will be ready to tour next week and I jump up and down in the privacy of my own kitchen where the rain is lashing the windows in earnest and Jake jumps with me, and seconds later has laid the disembodied arm of his beloved stuffed orangutan at my feet and though the books say you should never let the dog win at tug of war I will let him and nonchalantly start eating a piece of toast which will cause Jake to drop the arm and begin drooling and I will give Jake the toast and seize the arm and go running down the hall waving and yelling how I have climbed the mountain and am victorious! with Jake bounding after me barking  but not loudly because we are indoors after all and he is a good dog.

jake-and-me

Working Equation: An Arithmetic of Sounds, a Subtraction of Smells

The facility is busy these days; we rent commissary space and on some days there are as many as two dozen people moving quickly and purposefully about the bakery’s bright green floor.  The almond milk makers trundle past with their pallets of bottles, dates and almonds.  The bakers roll out double rack after double rack of fragrant cookies: peanut butter, snickerdoodle, Nutella chocolate chip, butterscotch oatmeal raisin.

hansel and gretel

Indiana University Dorm Room

Everywhere you look there are ordinary items rendered Willy Wonka-ishly peculiar by their commercial outsizedness:  huge hundred gallon red plastic trash cans filled with cold coffee, three foot tall whisks, mixing bowls large enough to bathe triplets in, and ovens as large as some dorm rooms I’ve shared.

Even the cookies, baked for a well known local company, are bigger than my face.

 

mariachi

Ai caramba

The convection fans emit a soft roar; the oven racks squeak and squeal as they rotate. The wind rattles restlessly at the metal garage doors, the drone of the dishwasher with it’s telltale waterfall whoosh signaling the end of another cycle is a constant undercurrent. And weaving through it all, the radio stations and itunes playlist of the three separate work teams: mariachi and Latino pop, NPR podcasts, hits of the 80s.

steampunk

Ready to bake

Huge machinery, oversized food, workers in  white coats, hair and beard nets bustling about in hectic industry, a soundtrack that includes snatches of country western, Mexican rap and and Donald Trump shouting Win!, …it’s like a steampunk vision of life, if Keebler Elves invented steampunk.

Whenever a podcast about Trump comes on, the bakers begin denouncing him vociferously and with high good humor.

He’s going to round us up into camps! yells Tall Baker Girl, laughing (but it is  serious-faced laugh).

No no no!, says Short Baker Girl,  ‘cuz you look white. But me, oy, my whole family wouldwoman sugar skull facesbe kicked ooooouut!”  She pounds the cookie dough,  her arms sleek with muscles and tattoos.  The dough warms under sunlight streaming from overhead roof windows.   In the natural light Short Baker Girl  has an almost otherworldly glowing bronze complexion like I imagine Egyptian princesses did, and a braid of hair so lushly thick I find myself trying to sneakily touch it when she’s not looking.

trojan horseThe joke that only immigrants will take the job of Mrs. Trump is repeated many times (and did, we wonder hilariously, they all have exceptionally dainty hands?) .  We laugh loudly at the impossibility of a Trump presidency, and if there is a note of incredulity or uneasiness in the laughter, it is lost under the thumping grinding music of the vast machinery all around us.