Reader Mari wrote in wanting to know how cannelés compare to other pastries I’ve made in terms of difficulty. What I like about that question is that it got me thinking about the various kinds of difficulty involved in making pastry, and how each one can drive you crazy in a different way. Mixing, baking, shaping, building, preparing and managing components, decorating, keeping, slicing and serving…a pastry can give you a workout in any area. Or worse, multiple areas. But why get all academic about it? Which of the recipes on the blog rank in my all-time tearing-my-hair-out, stomp-on-the-floor, cursing-the-gods-who-made-me top five? Here they are:
1. Kouign Amann. There were no reliable recipes or instructions in English on the web (or anywhere else I looked) when I set out to make this. Yes I looked at some French ones, but critical differences between American and French ingredients made them all but useless. It’s a layered dough with sugar folded in. The problem was that sugar is hygroscopic, so no matter what I tried the sugar turned to syrup, made the layers soggy and ruined the rise and texture. I finally solved the problem, but not before I made at least ten of them. I was so angry by the time I was done I couldn’t eat any of it. I nearly threw it at a neighbor I was so anxious to get rid of it.
2. Clafoutis. Clafoutis really isn’t a difficult recipe, but I kept tripping over nuances like pouring the batter and leaving the cherries un-pitted. All my iterations tasted good but looked terrible. I threw out several, and that really puts me on thin ice with Mrs. Pastry who abhors waste of any kind. It’s why I do my best to think through my projects all the way before I even begin. Not so much because I want to look good in front of you guys (though goodness knows I do) but because I’ll have to endure the wrath of Mrs. Joe.
3. Pastéis de Nata. These were frustrating on a number of levels. First because they’re so heavily romanticized within and outside of Portugal there’s a lot of misleading information on how to prepare them correctly. Which is to say, in an effort to capture the elusive something that makes the pastry shop versions so delectable, bakers of various skill levels have come up with all kinds of cockamamie formulas and techniques. As with most things, the direct approach turned out to be the best. Still I wrestled with the European-American gluten elasticity problem until I was finally forced to make a few compromises. Still, some of Mrs. Pastry’s Portuguese colleagues were amazed by the results.
4. Popiah Skins. Here again, at the time I set out to do this there were no readily available information sources in English, at least not for the technique I wanted to employ: slapping a big wet blob of dough onto a hot plate. I spent close to a week trying them every day and failing. I was about to give up when I finally remembered a trick from making focaccia: beating the dough on high for just about forever until the gluten finally strengthens enough. It worked…but phew, it’s stressful just thinking back on that one.
5. Sacher Torte. This is again not a very difficult pastry by today’s standards, but getting it up to the level that a true Sacher torte lover would appreciate is a challenge. Getting the cake layers moist enough to satisfy the modern palette, while leaving them dry enough to for a Sacher snob…not easy. And then there’s the topping which is supposed to be made with tempered chocolate for just the right texture. I ended up not going down that road because I wanted to make the glaze less intimidating to attempt. But honestly I’m still not completely satisfied with my version and hope to return to it one of these days.
Thanks for the question, Mari. Once I’m done with my PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks I’ll get back to my cannelés. Will they be harder than any of these? God I hope not since I’ll need a therapist before I’m done.