Long Live the Salmon King

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The canulier received the news that the salmon king had died.  She heard it from the scone man, who asked the Latvian sausage maker and the Japanese salad dressing specialist, then the fiery Italian pesto girl until he finally got an address. I knew you’d want to know, he wrote.

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For years they worked the weekend farmer’s markets together, sharing the Brotherhood of Waking Up Before Dawn On Weekend Mornings, rewarded by an eyeful of sunrise as they drove to the market,  shivering in light jackets and hats as they unloaded their trucks in the early morning chill, breath pluming as they traded gibes and offered each other help erecting their tents with the fairground peaks. The salmon king would direct others to help the canulier, who was small.   His muscles are younger than my back! he’d laugh as the jerky man would scurry to lend a hand.

Getting set up is a 30 minute endeavor unless you are the salmon king, who kept his crab cakes and wild Alaskan salmon steaks in a cooler, which he sat on, behind a table: voila, a market stall. Within five minutes of driving up and calling out his halloos to the canulier and the sausage maker he’d be open for business, chatting up the line of customers who seemed to apparate from other dimensions to queue up in front of his stand before his market mates had rung their first sale.  The not inconsiderable cost of fresh, wild caught Alaskan seafood is not a deterrent to the crowd at this market, one of whom once left a Tesla key fob among the canulier’s towers of pastry boxes.  She really knows how to barter, the Salmon King could be heard remarking.

copper-canele-moldThe canulier could be seen slipping behind the salmon king as he gabbed with his customers, leaving behind a crisp white bag of pastry – usually vanilla, though he favored pineapple and lemon too. In between waves of customers the salmon king would hold up the depleted white bag and call out to the canulier (“Thanks, Canelé Queen!”) then  turn to talk  back pain with the gruff, grudgingly friendly sausage maker. When he joked with the pretty salsa girl with her long hair dyed mermaid colors, their laughter would invariably bring the young pickle man, something the canulier suspected the salmon king of planning, though he would never say.

The rules of the market are clear: all tents must stay up til the end of the afternoon, but the salmon king has been there the longest of anyone and when he’s sold out he’s sold out, what’s the sense in waiting around? He’d spend five minutes loading up and before noon he’d be making his rounds to say goodbye til next weekend. Often, he’d save back a package of salmon or crab cakes for the canulier and drop them at her stall when she wasn’t looking, then  drive off with a honk and a wave of  his suntanned arm out the window of his old Datsun.

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The last time she saw the salmon king, the canulier didn’t know it was the last time, and neither did he.  She returned his wave, packed up her truck that just rolled over 250,000 miles and made the long trek home. She would be up before dawn the next day, but for now the window was cranked down to let the eucalyptus-scented air rush through her hair, and there was the happy  surprise of the salmon king’s gift of crab cakes on ice resting in the passenger seat. Barter anything good? came the husband’s text, and she sent the delicious answer All hail the salmon king. The end of the weekend beckoned with the jewel-like flash of sunset on a glass of wine.

The canulier’s fine husband prepared the crab cakes for dinner;  they opened the window and talked and ate with the mild California air breathing its fragrance into the room. It was such simple perfection the canulier felt her heart expand until it threatened to escape her chest, like light leaving a star.  They watched the sun’s slow descent into the Pacific, lighting up the distant blue of the water with a glittering red shimmerlane that stretched  like a path you could walk straight to the edge of the world itself, a sight the canulier would immediately remember when the sad news reached her that the salmon king had died.

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RIP Dave

We Are All French American Berliners

thoughts while baking for the world

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In an age where people have never seemed so alarmingly disconnected from one another’s reality, it is reassuring to go out and about in the world, stumbling into unexpected moments of grace that remind us, we’re all in this together.

At the Farmer’s Market, a petite woman paused at my stand and exclaimed in the most charming French accented English imaginable, “Oh, canelés! My papa made me canelé every Sunday, how wonderful the kitchen smelled!”

She clasped her hands together under her chin and inhaled deeply through her nose, her eyes closed, to demonstrate, and I looked around half expecting the lowering gray clouds to part, the sun to come out, and a man to propose to her on the spot, she was that charming, it was that much like a moment that should be in the movies if it hasn’t been already.

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Her eyes popped open and she bent down to look into the case, cooing “Really I must call my mother and tell her!”

Her gaze was filled with such delight I felt I had indeed done something worth calling if not writing  home about.

But why me? she wanted to know. How? Was I a Francaise? No, I tell her, my husband taught himself to make them, and over time we all – myself and the daughters included – became expert.  We each even have our own favorite flavor, but I knew she wouldn’t ask what was the best seller. All of our canelés sell well, but among our French customers there is only one best seller, the original Classic Vanilla Canelé de Bordeaux. Even the fondant flowers we sometimes put on top of the vanilla canelés for weddings is unacceptable to the French, who vaunt the original and want no truck with changes or even improvements.

She beamed at me and exclaimed “But you are so charming, the canelés, they are perfection!” (which sounded sexily like but zey cahn-uh-LAY zey ahr pair-FECK-shun!) 

Ever since, when I make canelés and they have been in the oven for about forty minutes, just when the scent begins to drift beyond the kitchen and send tendrils throughout the house, I think of this unnamed woman whose memory of a country kitchen in Bordeaux is now intertwined with my own story. In fact it was her voice I was thinking of when we needed a recording for an event we were catering: 

Just two filaments weaving themselves together in the tapestry that is humankind.

I sometimes think of her when I see the news – in her country, an extreme candidate is leading election polls, something not thought possible before the 2015 terrorist attacks on a newspaper and nightclub that killed more than 130 and wounded nearly 400 more.

Were all her family safe? Odds are, probably yes – her family was from Bordeaux, not Paris.  And what of my former colleagues, people from Paris and Lyon and Provence and Marseilles, people I boarded airplanes with and sat down for meals with, people who  invited me to eat birthday cake in the break room with them,  people who showed me pictures of their vacations and their kids during our coffee breaks before we returned to the business of whatever work it was we were working on.

Are they still going about their lives, and what are they thinking as the spring vote approaches with their own Le Trump rising and casting a long, sunset like shadow from the right?

So many lives touched, fate like a bee pollinating us with traces of one another.

I’d like to think the concentric rings of family and friends rippling around each of them are if not untouched by the terror (that is not possible), then at least unharmed, but the statistician in me knows the odds are slim, and what of it anyway? The tears of strangers sting with as much salt as my own.  The French had it right the morning after the World Trade Center attacks in New York on September 11th:

“We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, as surely as John Kennedy declared himself, in 1962 in Berlin, a Berliner”                    ~Jean-Marie Colombani, Le Monde

We are all connected, all the time, in ways that may have yet to reveal themselves.

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Destined for Greatness

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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!