Although I did learn numerous useful tips and tricks during my day at Pistacia Vera, I also discovered that there are some things I will probably never attempt at home. One of these is Husband's favorite, the humble yet complicated canelé.
A canelé, very simply, is a little cake made with a very thin batter. It is almost a soufflé - the batter is poured into very expensive brass molds which have been brushed with a mixture of beeswax and butter. The molds are put into a hot convection oven, where they quickly puff up and begin sizzling around the edges. The outsides of the cake get very, very brown - almost burned, and the cake inside is soft, full of pockets, and is reminiscent of a custard. Or a custard-soaked cake. It's kind of hard to explain, so maybe this picture will do it a little bit of justice:
The process of canelé-making takes days; the canelé molds are waxed and left to chill overnight; milk is boiled and then steeped with vanilla and blade mace (blade mace is the outer hull of the nutmeg nut; it has a rich and earthy aroma). The milk steeps for a day and is then drained. Rum and eggs are added, along with flour, and then this mixture is chilled overnight. The canelé are baked as described above, and then are unmolded immediately. It was clear that Spencer had unmolded a few of these before. He had a rhythm of plucking the canelé molds from their baking sheet with tongs, turning it upside down to turn the cake out onto a drying rack:
Spencer tosses me a piping hot canelé, fresh from the oven, and says "here, eat this with your coffee." for a few minutes I am in heaven eating; the cake is browned and crisp and caramelized on the outside; the inside is soft and moist, aromatic with soft earthy spices and comforting.
But the time to enjoy the sweet is short-lived, because it's time to make nougat.
I have to admit, I say to chef Robin, that I really have no idea on earth how nougat is made. I'm pretty sure she told me how easy it was. As it turns out, nougat is one of those things which, very much like the macarons, begins with a meringue. Egg whites are whipped and sugar is boiled -
I have to interject here for something here. With any profession which requires precise timing and temperatures, it is amazing to see how the professional has created their own system of timing. When I was a baker, I would start chocolate melting and hazelnuts roasting and butter softening the second I walked in the door. That way, they would all be ready to go when I began mixing batters. At Pistacia Vera, both Spencer and Robin had methods of setting their sugar on the stove to boil, and then starting their eggs whites whipping. By the time the sugar had reached the desired temperature, the eggs where usually ready to have the boiling hot sugar syrup added. I love this sort of body memory we all get when we perform the same tasks over and over. We train ourselves to time things mentally. We learn exactly how many tasks and which ones we can complete while something else is working.
When I was 19, I was a barista in a coffee shop with a manual extraction lever (something you rarely see anymore; they are almost all automated these days). The perfect shot of espresso took 18 seconds to pull, so I learned exactly what I could accomplish in 18 seconds - cut a bagel and throw it in the toaster, put flavored syrup in the cup, finish steaming the milk, et voila! time to assemble the coffee drink!
Where were we . . . of course! nougat!! The nougat begins with lots of egg whites. Boiling honey is added, and then boiling sugar. Everything is whipped, and whipped and whipped. "8 minutes, precisely" instructs Robin (okay, I took some creative license there, but she certainly gives off the air of someone who knows the precise number of seconds it takes for sugar to reach 147 degrees celsius, or how many minutes it takes the nougat to reduce from boiling to 42 degrees. At any rate, nougat making involves a lot of egg white whipping, and then a lot of boiling boiling sugar products into the egg whites while they are whipping (this happens twice!) and then the mixture whips and whips and whips, and then is whipped while the mixing bowl is being torched with a blow torch (this part is timed); more whipping. Then pistachios are added.
The whole nougat mixture is poured onto a board and rolled out (this seems particularly sticky). The nougat hangs out for awhile, drying and ripening, and then is cut (or rather sawed) with a serrated knife. Only then can you enjoy it. Well actually I got to enjoy a warm bite and it was amazingly delicious. But probably something I will never attempt myself.
Next up, we're going to make chocolate cherry financiers, then toffee, and yes, macarons.