Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Say Cannelés

Is it just me, or do cannelés look at home on a plate of hoshigaki? I've been meaning to write about cannelés, but after I put up the photo of the hoshigaki in my last post, I knew I'd need to write about the two back to back.

There's the obvious similarity in general shape and the definition of the ridges. In the hoshigaki this is due to the careful massaging process they undergo; in the cannelés it's thanks to the special pan they're baked in. While the persimmons' sugars cause the hoshigaki's exterior white bloom, the coating on the cannelés is the beeswax that lubricates the pan.

Cannelés are one of the more satisfying treats. At once a cake and a bite of custard, you can't really share one with a friend. Why? The only way to eat a cannelé is by biting through the outside crust--if you had a slice, or took a bite from the inside-out, you'd be missing out. Remember the pleasure Amélie took in shattering her crème brûlée with a spoon? That's how I feel about biting into a cannelé.

Properly made, the crust is dark and caramelized--it crunches in your mouth and then (only then!) yields to a chewy layer that protects the inner barely custardy section. The cake itself has only 8 ingredients: milk, butter, flour, salt, sugar, egg yolk, rum, and vanilla. The batter is aged 1 to 4 days before baking, allowing the flavors to develop. They are then baked for 2 hours, ensuring a crispy, caramelized exterior that completes the flavor.

For the past couple years, I've considered the cannelés at Ken's Bakery to be one of the must eat treats in Portland (Portland Food List #2). St. Honore Boulangerie also carries them. Heck, these days you can even buy a frozen version at Trader Joe's.

The other day we attempted a blind tasting of the three. I like to have these little experiments, as it's always easy to rope Pavel in. If I were to suggest we go out for cannelés, he'd probably point out that we had other things to do at home, or had already exceeded our bakery budget for the week. But the engineer in him is powerless when confronted by the blind-tasting ruse.

I say attempted because I wasn't blindfolded. I should have been--it was easy to tell which was which by sight. Ken's is by far the darkest. We tried to remedy the situation by having me close my eyes and being fed a bite of each, from the outside in. The Amélie in me (I like to think I have a bit of the romantic)wasn't fooled--the shattering in my mouth made it clear which was which. To be fair, I know many people who prefer St. Honore's--I think their interior was a bit more custardy, and less chewy. Trader Joe's brand was the least satisfying. But then I have options here in Portland.

It's not easy finding information about cannelés; Waverly Root's The Food of France makes no mention, nor does Larousse. The one book I've found that mentions cannelés is Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. The reason older books don't mention cannelés is that when they were written, people weren't making cannelés. Though cannelés were first made before the French Revolution, they've had their ups and downs. Indeed, Wolfert says they weren't around in 1970's Bordeaux.

And what about the name. Ken's and Trader Joe's both call them canneles; St. Honore calls them canelet. What gives?

According to Wolfert, in the early 80's, cannelés came back with such a bang that in 1985 the Brotherhood of the Canelé of Bordeaux was created. A first order of business, apparently, was the very French one of protecting the name. They dropped one 'n' from the old spelling, and registered the new name (canelé de Bordeaux) with the National Institute of the Industrial Property of France. The old name, cannelés, became the generic term,and should be used if you're not an official canelé de Bordeaux maker. I'll stick to cannelés.

Wolfert has a recipe for the cakes, and maybe someday I'll try it. I have to admit I don't feel pushed to--it would mean buying the pans, and then figuring out where to store them 363 days a year. Maybe, if I couldn't buy such good cannelés close to home, I might go ahead and outfit myself for serious cannelés production. But I can buy excellent ones right here in town, so I'll enjoy them and support my local bakery at the same time.

Ken's Bakery
338 NW 21st Avenue (corner of 21st and Flanders)
Portland, Oregon 97209

St. Honore Boulangerie (2 locations)
2335 NW Thurman St.
Portland, OR 97210
315 1st St.
Lake Oswego, OR 97304

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