February 15, 2011

In an Angel's kitchen: Tarte au Chocolat and Cannelés de Bordeaux

Her name is Céleste Mathilde and if her first name suits her perfectly, we should have thought of something more befitting for her middle name, Suzette or Madeleine perhaps?
At three years old, she was already mixing doughs. When she turned six, she had already mastered quite a few simple pastries like crêpes and clafoutis. By the age of ten, she was quite confident with some of the complicated steps of French baking and chocolate éclairs held no more secrets for her. At thirteen, for her 8th grade project, she wrote a twenty five pages essay titled "Cocoa and Chocolate" accompanied by a dozen of cakes and confections. That same year, as if that was not enough, she also baked and decorated the cake for her father's wedding for no less than eighty people.

It is no surprise that today, at eighteen, she is impatiently waiting to graduate from High School to attend "Le Cordon Bleu" in Paris and is working on weekends at a restaurant where she makes desserts and adores her work.
You see, she has it all planned out for a very long time! She already has the concept for her "Salon de Chocolat", what will be served and how everything will look like. Perfect and delightful of course, just like her!
She just needs to grow up a little more, that's all! But inevitably, that will come. And who knows then, what will happen?

Céleste is precious and beautiful like a pearl, fragile and strong, quiet most of the time...

She is captivating; sometimes impossible to understand and, like an exotic butterfly, dazzling and impossible to grasp. She can be patient, poised, collected and calm under fire (the kitchen one, I mean) as much as terribly mischievous, wild with a loyal heart and so very quick witted, it is hard to resist her.

A perfectionist at heart, she can spend hours lost in the making of confections as exquisite as jewels and since her passion is baking, she possesses as well the required cool and inquisitive mind of a scientist, no crazy spontaneity here, nothing like "a little more of this"; perfection is exactitude.
It takes a certain kind of person to be a baker: humble, passionate, obstinate, persistent, curious and very often unconventional. Bakers seem to me as highly creative with the left side of the brain, a paradox of sorts, their creativity managed by logic, like Cartesians in the kitchen, capable to render ethereal visions into tangible and delectable forms, if evanescent, which is part of their beauty.

Céleste's Chocolate Tart
for a 9inch or 20-cm tart pan

For the pâte sucrée:
2 cups or 400grs of flour
pinch of salt
3/4 cup or 140grs  butter
4oz or 120grs confectioner's sugar
the seeds of 1 vanilla bean
1 egg yolk
2 Tbs of heavy cream

In a food processor, blend the sugar and the flour with the salt. Add the butter cut in small pieces, pulse, add the egg yolk, process briefly, add the cream until it forms a ball. Roll in a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven at 350ºF or 175ºC.
When the dough is firm, sprinkle some confectioner's sugar on a surface, wait a few minutes for the dough to slightly warm up and roll very thinly, about 1/4inch. Transfer to a tart pan with a removable bottom being careful not to stretch the dough, press gently but firmly the dough against the edges of the pan so it fits tightly; cut the excess dough with a knife, prick the bottom with a fork and refrigerate 30 minutes. After that time, lay a piece of aluminium foil on the dough and fill it with beans, bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans, bake 10 minutes longer watching that the dough remains pale but cooked. Remove from the oven and let it cool. The dough is fragile, handle carefully.

For the chocolate filling:
250 grs of bittersweet chocolate
100 grs unsalted butter
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
50 grs sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
a dash of Cointreau

In a bowl, beat with a mixer the eggs, egg yolk and sugar until thick and pale yellow.
Melt the chocolate and the butter in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the chocolate is glossy, add the Cointreau and let cool slightly. Add the heavy cream to the chocolate and pour this preparation in the egg mixture. Pour in the tart shell, cook for 10 minutes max until barely set. (If the top starts to crack, remove at once, it is starting to overcook). Cool until warm.

For the Crème Chantilly:
1 cup of very cold heavy cream
3Tbs confectioner's sugar
2tsp pure vanilla extract or the seeds from 1 vanilla bean

In a very cold bowl, beat the sugar, heavy cream and vanilla with a whisk until it forms soft peaks. Voilà, that's all there is to it! I guess in non-French circles, it's called sweetened whipped cream...

Serve a wedge of tart with a dollop of the Chantilly and some shavings of chocolate on top. If you were inclined to improve on something already perfect, you could, like Céleste, serve this with some strawberry sauce on the side and a little pitcher of lemon verbena Crème Anglaise.

Cannelés de Bordeaux

Cannelés are the beloved little cakes from Bordeaux, where I come from, and Céleste loves them. They are nothing short of an institution in Bordeaux and Maison Baillardran specializes in them and trust me, theirs are perfect! Like many things with ancient and humble origins, they are pretty simple to make and only require a few common ingredients. 
That said, to make a great cannelé is another story! A cannelé should be dark, caramelized and crunchy on the outside, creamy soft and sweet on the inside, redolent of rum and vanilla. Cooking them properly is tricky; letting the batter rest for at least 24 hours is mandatory, you will need to get the copper molds (forget about the silicone ones) and if you want to have a perfect crust, you need either beeswax or a professional pastry spray. 
Not to be discouraged, once you get the "tour de main", making and baking them will become easier; they are nothing more than a cross between a crêpe and a clafoutis batter baked in copper molds.

Batter for 12 cannelés:
1/2 liter ( 1/2 quart) of milk
2 vanilla beans, split
50g (2 1/2oz) butter, unsalted
250 g (8oz) sugar 
120g (4oz) flour, sifted
1 pinch of salt
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
3Tbs Rum
Heat the milk with the vanilla beans until the boiling point, turn off the heat and add the butter.

In a bowl, mix the flour, sugar and salt, add the egg yolks and mix very gently. When incorporated, add the eggs, mix thoroughly (and gently, not whisking or beating air into it) until the batter is very smooth (no lumps allowed). Do this by hand with a wooden spoon, not an electric mixer. When smooth, add the milk with the butter (barely warm) little by little, then the rum.
Place in the fridge for at least 24 hours (48 hours is better) for the flavors to ripen and allow the air bubbles to rise  to the surface. You do not want the batter to rise when it cooks or your canelés will be ruined, we are not making popovers or a soufflé!
Strain the batter through a fine mesh sieve. Keep it cold.
Heat the oven at 240ºC or 450ºF. Grease very well the molds with either beeswax and butter (1:1 ratio, melt in a small saucepan on low heat 50grs of beeswax, when melted, turn off the heat and add the butter, coat lightly the molds with the warm mixture and invert them on a rack), baking spray or butter. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes.
After that time, pour the batter in the molds, fill until 1cm (1/2 inch) below the surface, place on a baking sheet and cook for 1 hour. The temperature is going to drop: the molds are cold, the batter is cold (in purpose), after 10 minutes, the temperature should have come back to 450ºF, lower to 200ºC or 375ºF and continue to cook for 45 minutes.
Do not underbake, do not burn, that's what tricky: too soft and pale, it's NOT a canelé! Burned, it's not a canelé either and impossible to eat! You need to know your oven and watch like a hawk towards the end (you might want to pick one out of the oven towards the end of cooking, slip it out of the mold and check the color). It's the same as making caramel: it goes from  undercooked to burned in a matter of seconds, you have to stop at perfect in the middle and practice will make perfect!
Unmold after a few minutes, let cool, wait 1 hour and EAT!

February 13, 2011

Balinese Offerings: Canang and Banten

Yesterday morning, I woke up early and headed to Komang's uncle house to prepare the Canang and Banten, the traditional Balinese offerings. Everyone was already busy at work cutting the tips of the bananas and washing them, preparing all the flowers and organizing the jaja and fruits.

There are many different offerings and all have a symbolic meaning and a specific purpose. Every one knows exactly how to make them but I have to say that I progress slowly regarding the detailed explanation of each one of them. I am always torn, in these occasions, between learning and being respectful. It is not that people don't know or are not patient to explain, it is just that they have always done this; it is a tradition passed down and acquired since childhood, gestures learned and done with care, love and respect but not intellectualized in the Western sense.

 I just marvel at their beauty and have learned the proper way to make them without knowing exactly why they are each done a certain way.

What I do know is that they are all a gift from the heart to the gods, made as beautiful as possible.
They connect humans to the unseen world and bring balance and harmony between the positive and negative forces, they are a symbol of love and devotion. 

I am always touched by their evanescent beauty. Like Tibetan Mandalas, they are not meant to last, just to remind us to give our best every day because of love and belief. 

And doing this repetitively gently teach patience and surrender to something bigger. I learned it does not work to hurry or to do it to get done with it, better not doing it then. It certainly changed my perspective on life... And if I still don't exactly know what I am doing, I know it's beautiful!