We Are All French American Berliners

thoughts while baking for the world

chocolate-caneles

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.

amelie

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.

woven

 

 

 

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.

shiny.png

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

The Business You’re Really In

caneles garden of flowers.pngDescribe your business in a few sentences, the application read.

As a business owner I am in the business of making decisions, but this one always flummoxes me.  Do I focus on where we’re at, or where we want to be?  Journey or destination?

We make a French pastry, I think about writing, then don’t.  I am in the business of trying to raise investor money which means being in the business of being clear and concise  while at the same time curiosity-provoking all whilst on a short elevator trip.  “We make a French pastry” is concise, though not very descriptive, for all its accuracy.  And although we do in fact make a French pastry, we are not in the French pastry business, any more than Uber is in the car business.

nun (3)

She’ll tell you what a canele is

I could go for cute and pithy: I’m in the business of delicious! But I’m in the marketing business and refuse to add to the burden of insipidity I see streaming before me every day on Twitter.

Don’t describe the product, tell a story about your customers!  the social media marketers suggest. The most common response when someone tries a sample is “oh my God” is what I want to write. One customer said “That’s so good it makes me feel like crying.”

I’m in the business of waking at 4a every morning, I could write.  I’m in the business of creating joyful mouths.  I’m in the business of farmer’s markets and regular customers that say where were you last week I missed you with a slightly accusing tone.

I’m in the business of addiction, I’m in the business of shock and awe and unrepentant and even self-righteous indulgence.   I’m in the business of so many other small artisan food businesses, all of us up early and driving through the dark to do what must be done.

Or maybe I’m in the business of something even bigger, something like brotherhood, which is the best word I can come up with to describe the happy fellow feeling of camaraderie that springs up around the sample tray as this Filipino grandmother and that Mexican agricultural worker and this Tesla driving VC cand that flight attendant in her  crisp navy American Airlines uniform moan and yell oh my God and furtively take two and even three samples.

18I am in the business of immediate gratification, I am in the business of giving your tongue a lesson in French cooking, where the ingredients are simple but put through a whole retinue of processes that cannot be skipped or rushed, which means I’m maybe most of all in the business of time.  To get to the oh my god takes eighteen precise steps taken over forty-eight hours, which is a lot of time indeed — it’s the same amount of time it takes to run 200 miles, the same amount of time it took me to drive from Austin Texas all the way to San Francisco fifteen years ago, it’s the average number of hours the average full time American employee works in an average week, according to Gallup.

People who work that hard typically don’t have time to learn the finer points of making a little known French pastry which suggests I am also in the convenience business.  And because canelé has an unapologetically French pronunciation, complete with funny little accent mark, one might say I’m in the ambassador business, bringing American customers an authentic taste of France, a place that many Americans resent on principle and rumor.

french flagMy French customers (of which there are a surprisingly steady supply in the south Bay) are unfailing (if a wee unflattering) in their expressions of amazement at finding something so authentically French in their mouths. Mais vous n’êtes pas français! they gasp, and then buy gratifyingly large quantities.  Some tell me mistily of their papa who made them canelés at breakfast Sundays in Bordeaux and then walk off having associated me, a very American-type American, with their French childhood as well as favorite pastry.

I’m in the business of subverting expectations, you could say.

Thanks to the universally appealing taste and texture profile of the canelé,  I am also in the business of weddings and twenty-fifth anniversaries and even three year old’s birthday parties. And after two years in business and the accrual of a large fanbase of regulars not to mention fellow farmer’s market vendors, I quite unexpectedly find myself in the friend-making business.

I am in the entrepreneur business, which means I am in the business of being uncomfortable.  The word ‘entrepreneur’ is (so I am told) Latin for “cashflow is now your number one concern”, which is something a lot of people don’t know, that even when you are not motivated by money, you are going to need it like a battery needs electrons, like a body needs water, like a baby needs touch.

And no matter what business it is that you think you are in – the piano moving business, the salad dressing business, the bridesmaids dresses business, the gluten free dog biscuit business – the business you are really in, is the numbers business.

You’ll also be in the growth business, and in the business of annoying everyone you know by finding in every single topic no matter how seemingly unrelated to your business, some potential opportunity for you business.

None of this will help you fill out the deceptively simple invitation to “describe your business in a few sentences”, though.

I am a writer  which means I am in the business of story-telling, so ultimately that is what I write on the application – the  story of how we are in the business of reimagining the cafe, sort of like The Moth meets Cafe du Monde.  It is the business of connecting people to each other, it is the business of bringing people together, it is the business of all of us, really, the business of the shared community of shared stories.

It only looks like a French pastry business.

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Francophile

When we have time for TV we like to pile on the couch with garlic popcorn and the dog and watch the cooking competitions.

It’s not how you start, our favorite chef is fond of saying, and we finish right along with him, “It’s how you finish!”

But really of course, it’s how you start *and* finish.

The week definitely got off to an interesting start, touched with a little French magic.  Before deliveries I go to meet Svetlana for coffee and a catch up and to review her second pass at the tattoo she is designing for me.

My drive to the cafe is  an obstacle course of  waiting Uber drivers, disembarking Lyft passengers,  a zillion meal delivery services  with their smugly flashing hazard lights and what seems like a billion cyclists pedaling nonchalantly through the hilly traffic, way way too trusting (if you ask me) that their fellow motorists are paying adequate attention to their small, vulnerable bodies whizzing through space just inches from tons of fast moving metal.

I am running a little late because my GPS has decided to be mysteriously silent and my knowledge of the neighborhood  is sketchy at best, and I am roundly cursing Siri when I turn a corner and I see a parking spot that I almost pass up, it is that too good to be true.

As I gather my purse etc. I notice the motorcycle in the spot in front of me.  It is a sexy black and orange street machine and as I get out of the car I ask the nearby owner if I can take a picture.

frenchman!“But of course!” he says, with a gallant little bow.  I do a countdown so he can be in the pic if he wants to, and to my surprise he wants to, and even with his helmet on you can see/feel his big smile.

“Here,” I give him a four pack of mini-canelés – the Dark Chocolate Chunk which are like little French kisses from someone maybe you oughtn’t be kissing – and he says

“What are zese?”  I tell him canelés de Bordeaux and he throws his arms out wide. “But I am French!” he says, then clasps his hands at his breast he says “Mademoiselle I love you!”

I reflect this is a good start to the week, when a man on a motorcycle declares his love  just on the strength of how my pastries look in the box.

bento menu.PNGDo three Frenchmen who love your French pastry= a trend? I am going to say yes.  Chef M is another Gallic fan of Dark Chocolate Chunk canelés – the full size for him, no fussy mini can-cans.

“Bring me some so we can take a picture for our smartphone app,” he texts me.  “Then I will EAT IT!”

I was hoping they’d advertise the canelés just that way on the app screen, –  maybe with huge stark words Eat It! superimposed on the shining, fluted sides of a canelé – but no such luck, it just says Chocolate Canelé.  Still it looks yummy and there is no validation in this business like a Frenchman’s (or Frenchwoman’s).

babelleIn other validating news, famous French restaurant person Pascal Rigo will be adding flavored canelés  at his new, rustic relaunch of La Boulangerie de San Francisco.  “You’re doing a good job here,” he told us when we brought him a tasting and trembled for the verdit. We’re betting he starts with pecan and bacon.

Across the pond, the sexy canulier team at  Babelle  are plying London with gorgeously flavored, richly decorated canelés, flirting with me on Twitter with that fizzy effervescent Frenchness that they have.  Her canelés look like bouquets of flowers (and sound like them too, with names such as Athena and Clea to denote flavors like lavendar and violet.)  We predict 2016 will be the year of the canelé.  Stay tuned.

Svetlana needs another week or two on the design which is fine, if there is one thing you don’t want to rush, it’s anything about the tattoo process.  She introduces me to the baristas and I wish I had a video of the time she ate four bacon canelés one-two-three-four at a party where she made and served us all borscht and we all  sat on her bed to eat it.  Somehow I left with a pair of her boots, and we’ve been friends ever since.

burl 1

We are at the market rain or shine, and Saturday is rainy while Sunday is, if not shiny, at least not wet.   Dave the salmon guy is back from knee surgery and the day is a a steady stream of customers asking him how he is recovering.

A woman I recognize as the Chocolate One (she always gets dark chocolate chunk and dark chocolate pecan) runs up to the table and dramatically announces that she ONLY comes to the market for our canelés and has been panicked! absolutely panicked! that I was no longer coming to the market. I tell her we just celebrated one year in business and anyway she can just order online and she actually claps.

Give me TWO boxes, she says, and adds THE BIG ONES, and she positively cackles and for a split second she reminds me, in her casual just-woke-up gray sweats and tousled hair, of Scrooge leaning out the window and shouting at the boy to got down and get the prize turkey in the window, “the one as big as I am!”.

All in all it is a slow day at the market what with the slanty rainy weather and the holidays just behind us. The till is down a few hundred from my usual take and on the way home I try to be philosophical about it.  After all I did get the chance to check on Dave after his knee, and talk acupuncture for back pain with Greg the sausage guy.  The scone guy now has not one but *two* bacon flavors and is thinking of ditching the HR thing and going full time on the scone thing.

How’d it go, my husband asks as my bedraggled self comes in.  Was it worth going?

I pause.  Our sales are down about 30% from average, but are already climbing, with the steady return of our regular customers.  There is Gail, who reports her husband is now pre-diabetic and we discuss the possibility of trying to make a canelé with Stevia. Hmmmm.  There is Ellen who is at the Saturday market instead of her usual Sunday appearance, appearing out of the umbrella crowd with a big grin and with a satisfying large order of classic vanilla.

There is the gluten free family – a very slender, nice mom and two daughters – one gets a mini chocolate, the older one with the mini-mom face gets a classic vanilla gluten free.  I always give the young one a sticker which she puts on her hand.  Thanks for advertising me! I tell her and she shyly looks away, then back at me, then bites the  chocolate top off her pastry.

It was  fine, I tell my husband, a little low. But good! As I speak my phone buzzes in my pocket. It is a notification from our online store, from the Chocolate One.

“Good to see you today!” it reads, where the space for “Messages” is on the order form. “p.s. I”m going to send these to ALL of my friends!”

My phone buzzes with each new notification of a new sale – boxes going to Pennsylvania and Texas, Ohio and Arizona and Missouri…..all of a sudden the weekend deposits are no longer anemic but positively robust.

And voila, just like that, the week has a magical finish equal to its romantic French start.

Try to start your week with a little French love, that’s my recommendation.  See where it takes you from there.