This is the first week that the weather has begin to turn. Spring has been wet and cold, and though the oaks outside my bedroom window are currently swathed in thick morning fog, it's still going to be a beautiful afternoon.
I wanted to tell you about what I've been doing in San Francisco. Because the truth is, that's where the main cooking events of recent months have been happening. The experimentation, the thought, and time, has taken place on the second floor of a Victorian San Francisco on 24th street.
I've been cooking with SB. You first met him here, and our forays into kitchen exploits, drama, successes and disappointments have only grown since. I've been hesitant to write about him and our cooking together, for various reasons, but the fact is he'll be leaving soon, and now that moments choppping and whipping and frying in his small kitchen with tall bay windows are past, I feel comfortable sharing them.
Part of it has been that these cooking stories have not been only my own. His kitchen, his camera, and often his recipes, have dictated much of the experience. My role, apart from assisting and of course tasting, has often been to steer us away from the specificity of his technical cookbooks. While he insists on weighing ingredients and having butter at the perfect temperature, I tend to throw in an extra handful of pine nuts into the pasta, or roughly chop pink shallots into an irregular confetti, rather than mince them into perfectly square minisicule flakes. I like to think of myself as the shaker, in this scene. He, the statue.
But, I now intend to retrace some of my steps, and claim the stories that I helped create, regardless of location or propriety.
The third time I met SB, he made ten pounds of puff pastry, promptly followed by palmiers and tarte tatin. The fourth, madeleine cookies flavored with turkish ground Blue Bottle coffee. The fifth, a sweet lime soufflé.
Every time I arrived at the door, generally on Friday afternoon after making the drive along the coast, across the Golden Gate, and up the Divisadero hill to Noe, we had a plan to cook. More precisely, he had a plan to cook and bake, and I would go along for the ride.
We based our conversations around ideas for new baked goods to experiment with, and our time around flipping through cookbooks on his tiny back deck, often drinking Zacapa chilled with ice.
One phase we had was for canelés. I wrote about these creatures months ago: a French pastry, caramelized on the outside, soft, chewy and creamy on the inside, flavored with vanilla bean and rum. The two of us had chatted about them a few times, and SB had only tasted the version featured at a San Francisco bakery called La Boulange - a canelé that looked correct in form and color, but always had the spongy quality of something that had been sitting around for a few days.
Perhaps it was my insistence that these were not real canelés, and you had to go to the Marais district of Paris for a true representation of what this marvelous creation should look like, that inspired SB. Perhaps he just took my claims about the inadequacy of La Boulange as a challenge.
One week, he purchased copper molds for a pretty penny (disdaining the much less expensive silicone as "inferior"), a handful of vanilla beans, and a bottle of Zacapa rum (again, for a pretty penny), and announced that that weekend, we were making canelés.
This was a beast I had never thought to tackle. Oddly shaped, oddly cooked, and oddly flavored, it was a mystery to me as to how you actually arrived at this alien but delicious end product. And yet, onward we went.
We began with two different batters, one at my suggestion, and one at the suggestion of his Larousse reference book.
I stopped in Sebastopol on the drive over for a block of wax to coat the copper molds. When I arrived, he had already prepared the two batters the night before to allow them to rest overnight (like small children or anxious men, the batters were fussy).
We melted the beeswax and, after several false starts, were able to coat the scalloped molds in a thin layer of the stuff. The batter poured in, we slid the molds into the oven, trying different times and temperatures. At minimum, each batch of four molds took and hour and a half. This allowed plenty of time for drinking the thick, molasses flavored rum that had been used in the batter.
The first round exited the oven door perfectly shaped, yet dense, hard, and dry. We had let the molds stay in the oven longer than the recipe suggested, seeking that dark, caramelized crust so essential to the proper canelé experience. Unfortunately, this also resulted in drying out the center, and as we chewed through the brick like pastry we knew we could do better.
Batter number two swelled in the oven like a soufflé. Jumping out of its mold and defying all intention to stay a particular shape, the crust did indeed achieve that specific and lovely chew, while still maintaining a moist, custardy interior.
But SB thought the center a bit too gooey, so we continued to experiment with time and proportions, eating our way through mistakes and semi-triumphs.
We never really agreed on what version we thought was best. I preferred the versions showcasing a crust so crispy it shattered beneath the teeth, then yielded to a lusty, moist center. These were the product of the second batter, and inevitably a bit oddly shaped. SB preferred his a bit denser, a bit less soft on the interior, and a bit more true to tradition when it came to the batter's willingness to stay put in its mold.
In the end, it was Batter 2 that preformed best, regardless of mold and cooking time, and it was this recipe that SB continued to prepare the odd weekend.
The thing is, though intimidating at first with molds and beans and temperatures, the canelé is essentially a simple creature. A crepe like batter that you pay attention to for a few moments, and then set aside in the refrigerator until you are ready for it. It waits for you and bides its time, getting better as it rests and relaxes, and then when you are ready, it's ready. Thrown in the oven when you first wake up, the canelés are delicious as a midmorning brunch, or perfect to bring to the park down the street for an afternoon walk, or to bring to a friend's house as a finale, no fuss dessert (preferably alongside Zacapa, an essential pairing we've learned).
Instead of leaving a recipe here, I will send you over to where I first found Batter 2 - a blog written by Clotilde, who does a much better job explaining the details that I do. (Our main change, besides monitoring the oven times closely, was to let the milk cool in step two before whisking into the eggs, so the eggs do not begin to cook.)
If you don't plan on buying copper (or silicone) molds in the near future, I will then send you to Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building of San Francisco. A purveyor of many exciting foodie items, their version of the canelé far surpasses any other I've tasted - short of Paris - both in perfection of crust crispiness and in boldness with vanilla bean and rum additions.
Flashy yet humble, difficult yet comforting, a fine canelé specimen is built to impress. But, like many things, baking canelés had their moment. Though I do love the way our canelés always showed off the vanilla bean, whose flecks would pool in the bottom of the mold while baking, becoming a freckled crown at the peak of the pastry when the cannelés saw their final flip, I will be leaving the baking to the Ferry Building, and leaving the copper molds to SB.
As they say: onward!