It’s the bane of adventurous food-lovers everywhere. It’s worse than gastrointestinal bugs, worse than meat of unidentifiable origins, worse than smarmy waiters who try to convince you that the tourist menu is really, truly what the locals order. No, the worst part of traveling with a healthy appetite is not the host of unpleasantries you risk facing at any given meal, it’s actually the prospect of encountering something really, well, good.
Before you protest, think about it for a minute. What, after all, usually happens when you discover a new favorite food? You want to eat it again, of course. This would be no problem at all if you’d just discovered this new food at the bistro around the corner, but if your one and only taste was at, say, a street stall in northern Thailand, or a tiny trattoria on the south coast of Sicily, well, things start to get a lot more complicated. It’s not like you can jump on a plane and fly halfway around the world every time the craving hits. And cravings are tricky things, not only because they tend to grow rather than subside over time, but because they laugh in the face of your attempts to placate them with some pale, watered-down, locally-available facsimile of the real thing. No, these kind of cravings demand the real deal, something anyone who has ever laid awake at night thinking about the musical snap in the crust of that wood-fired pizza in Naples or the ethereal complexity of the sauce slathered on that rack of ribs in Memphis can painfully comprehend. It’s almost enough to make you swear off travel completely, if only to forcibly limit the length of the ever-growing register of frustration and deprivation it spawns (to borrow a term from the great food writer Calvin Trillin).
Although I have traveled and tasted considerably less than the venerable Mr. Trillin, my own register is certainly not wanting for entries. At one end are all the general cravings I suffer from since moving to Scotland: really good Mexican food; decent and affordable sushi; all those cheap and authentic Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Korean meals I used to take for granted when I lived in more culturally diverse places. These entire-cuisine cravings are potent, but they’re also pretty pointless unless I’m prepared to endure many backbreaking hours in the kitchen straining my own mole and pressing my own tortillas, which, let’s face it, due to my lack of experience rarely turn out that good anyway.
On the other end of the frustration and deprivation spectrum are specific foods – local specialties, usually, though a restaurant creation or two has been known to sneak in as well. These are things I actually feel I have a shot at recreating, and as long as I keep the number from any specific trip reasonably low, I am usually able to focus long enough to concoct decent approximations. Take, for example, my last trip to Paris. While nearly everything I ate there was good, two things continued to haunt my thoughts long after returning home. One was the salted caramel ice cream from Berthillon (which, by the way, I am this close to cracking); the other were those stubby little burnished-brown pastries from Bordeaux called cannelés, the closest thing I have experienced to licking a voluptuously silky crème brûlée from the palm of my hand.
I began researching recipes for cannelés almost immediately after returning and was delighted to discover that they’re not actually that hard to make at home. What stopped me cold, however, was the realization that they require special molds – special copper molds to be precise (other types exist, but consensus seems to be that they’re not worth it), costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 each. Multiply that by the eight or ten needed to churn out a batch of cannelés, and I had a major pit forming in the bottom of my stomach. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t spent that much money on kitchen equipment before, but I’ve never spent that much on kitchen equipment that only serves one, single, very specific purpose.
Finding this conflict between stomach and wallet irreconcilable, I tried to put off thinking about it, hoping that a lucky lottery ticket would solve the matter for me. But as the months passed, the lottery ticket failed to materialize and the cravings grew stronger, out of my desperation a crazy idea was hatched. What if I took the idea behind the cannelé and reinvented it into something, well, bigger? I mean, as long as there were still an abundance of crust and fluted ridges and a long stint in a hot oven, wouldn’t it be possible to just upsize this little delicacy using equipment I already had?
Well, the short answer to this long story is yes, it is – and it’s not only possible, it’s fantastic. Everything great about cannelés is present in this pimped-up version – the chewy, caramelly exterior, the soft, custardy interior, the subtle, fragrant sweetness – only that it’s served in slices. Though admittedly lacking some of the aesthetic charm of the original, it goes just as well with a cup of coffee to provide a little afternoon pick-me-up, and eats out of hand quite nicely too if grabbing some to go is more your style. It certainly won’t win any awards for authenticity, and probably will set some fingers wagging furiously in Bordeaux, but really, isn’t that an awfully small price to pay for feeling that much less frustrated and deprived?
No, your eyes did not deceive you – this gigantic cannelé is baked in a good old American bundt pan, which happily seems to be making a comeback in baking circles. Those of you outside of North America might want to try a Kugelhopf pan, which a bit narrower and taller but still has the same general shape (though they do tend to run a bit smaller so some recipe adjustments may be necessary). If all else fails I imagine a plain tube pan or even a savarin mold might do the trick – you’ll never know unless you try! Just make sure whatever pan you use is quite thick and heavy, to evenly distribute the heat during the long, long baking time. I should also point out that while the white oil is technically optional, it is important to giving the right texture and shine to the crust. Beeswax may seem like an odd ingredient but it is easy to track down online and costs very little – and is well worth investing in if you like cannelés the slightest bit!
Source: adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen
for white oil:
1 oz (30g) beeswax
1 cup (250ml) vegetable oil
2 vanilla beans, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups (1ltr) whole milk
2 cups (400g) superfine/caster sugar
1 1/2 cups (200g) cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (60g) cold unsalted butter, diced
10 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons (60ml) dark rum
equipment: a 12-cup (10-inch) heavy
-duty bundt pan
For the white oil, melt the beeswax in a glass measuring cup set inside a pan of simmering water. When completely melted, stir in the oil, a little at a time, waiting for the mixture to remelt each time before adding more. When all the oil is incorporated, remove the cup from the pan and let cool slightly. Rewarm the mixture before using, if necessary.
Split the vanilla beans in half and scrape out the seeds, then throw the seeds and beans into a medium saucepan with the milk. Bring to a boil, then cover and set aside to cool to 183F (about 5-7 minutes). In a food processor, combine the sugar, flour, salt and butter and pulse until the butter is well distributed. Add the egg yolks one by one, pulsing just until the mixture starts to come together into a batter. With the machine on, slowly and steadily pour in the hot milk through the feed tube, discarding the vanilla beans. Strain the mixture into a large bowl to remove any lumps, pressing through any congealed egg yolk. Stir in the rum (and vanilla extract if that’s what you are using), cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day preheat your oven to 400F/200C and center a rack in the middle of the oven. Grease a 12-cup bundt pan with a thin film of the white oil (it should really be a fine coat, so wipe out any excess with a paper towel). Place the pan in the freezer for about 15 minutes, then remove and fill with the cold batter (give it a stir first to re-homogenize). Place directly on the center oven rack and bake for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 350F/170C and continue baking until the crust looks deep brown and smells caramelized, 2-3 hours more. How dark you let it get is actually up to you – the darker it gets the more bittersweet it will taste (you can unmold the cannelé and check its color periodically if you want to be sure; also you can loosely cover the top with aluminum foil if it looks in danger of burning). When it’s done unmold it immediately and let it cool completely on a rack. When it’s hot the crust will still be soft, but will harden upon cooling. The cannelé is best enjoyed at room temperature or slightly warm; the crust will soften over time but a few minutes in a hot oven should crisp it up again like new.