Shaking a Fist at the Gods

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.

24 thoughts on “Shaking a Fist at the Gods”

  1. Oh, but that Kouign Amann turned out perfectly for me on the very first try and I had never made puff pastry before. So all of your hard work was very worth it for me. I even tell people how easy it was to make! I had been intrigued by that pastry for quite some time and after you paved the way, I jumped right on it.

    1. Glad to hear that Linda. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to return to the fetal position.

      – Joe

  2. Hey J: Just want to say how much I’m loving this series. I adore cannelés (though they’re hard to come by and often wretchedly made). I’ve always wondered how on earth one puts them together – obviously, not enough to research the topic! – and I feel like I’m getting so much great info.

  3. I used the kouign amann recipe from Chef Eddy’s blog and it turned out really well on first attempt. Making classic croissants or macarons have been much more difficult for me.

    1. I haven’t seen that one but I certainly believe you!

      Let me know if I can help you troubleshoot your other projects!


      – Joe

  4. I gave up on clafouti. Every one I made had the texture of rubber, and I figured there were better things to do with sweet cherries — like eating them out of hand.

    1. Oooohhh…I can’t think of too many better uses for sweet cherries than clafoutis. Try this one if you feel like it. I think it turned out really well.

      Just a suggestion!

      – Joe

      1. I always pit the cherries when making clafouties, which I know is JUST. NOT. DONE. but. . .
        I also have never had a problem making them — maybe I’m doing something wrong?!??? 😉

        1. Hey, I’m not going to criticize, as long as you’re making clafoutis I’ll still come over for dinner.


          – Joe

  5. Oh, I’ll bet dodging pastries isn’t as bad as it sounds. Ima gonna try that one next, it looks delectable.

  6. Joe, when I think about how many times I’ve have to do anything to get the photo I’d like to be up on the internet for all to see it’s kinda staggering. I am so grateful that you do it on our behalf so that we can learn and avoid many pitfalls.

    OTOH, I am pretty much with Mrs. Pastry on the issue of waste. I’m sure someone helps out when it comes to eating the evidence of the seconds but, still, the grocery bill must take its share of hits.

    I’m sending another donation to the Joe Pastry Grocery Fund. I’m hoping other grateful readers will do the same.

  7. I hadn’t discovered your blog when you were doing all these things. Each look wonderful despite the tsuris they may inflicted on you. I hope it’s all over now that you’ve nailed each of them.

    Pastéis de nata are the ones I totally have to try. They look sensational.

    And what a great tip to stack scraps of laminated dough rather than bunching them up!

    1. Thanks Rainey! And while I still have flashbacks I mostly control them through medication, thanks. Let me know how you do!

      – Joe

  8. Joe, thank you, thank you, thank you for the effort you put in not only to perfect these recipes but then to show us how it’s done! Of this list, I’ve only done the kouign amann and the clafoutis to date, but your tips and photos were – and always are – invaluable and truly appreciated!

    By the way, speaking of the clafoutis, I highly, highly recommend turning it into a flaugnarde using small, very ripe apricots and roughly 2 parts ground hazelnut (instead of almond meal) to one part flour. I actually prefer this to the original cherry version, although it can be hard to find suitably small apricots. (I also reduced the sugar by about half and used a touch of vanilla instead of almond extract.)

    1. What a wonderful note, Jen! Thanks so much — and you’re very welcome!

      And what a great idea! If I can find some fresh apricots I’ll definitely try it!


      – Joe

  9. I would definitely put canneles in this category. I worked on them for a long time before finding a recipe/technique that works for me. And I think I remember eating each and every one of my failures too!

  10. This reminds me of one time, years ago, when I was working on a pastry project, and grandma called me. Things weren’t going well so I thought I’d ask for her advice, my believe in the fact that grandmas had the wise answers to all baking questions still unshaken. She listened to my lond detailed question very patiently and at the end she said: “Ok, I see. Here is what you are going to do…”. I was sure I was to learn yet another secret from here, and she goes : ” Go find an old newspaper (what ?!?), wrap the dough in it, and when nobody is watching, just throw it away. You won’t believe how many times I’ve done that over the years.” Then she cleared her throat and said ” nobody has to know, and there are always plenty of newspapers around”. Then she wisely added : “Start over on a better day…and, I swear, the flour is just not what it used to be like in the old days”. I laughed, and still do every time I fail. I think this made the category of the wisest things I’ve learned from grandma. I don’t give up though :).

    1. Yeah I’ve done that a time or two myself. Sometimes it’s all you CAN do!

      Thanks for the great note, Dani!

      – Joe

  11. Pastry can be surprising and humbling. I love this post and all the comments. I have been pretty successful with baking (blue ribbons at the State Fair), but the thing that kicks my butt is genoise. It comes out like felt. After several spectacular failures, I have just chalked it up to high altitude (5,000 ft here) and just avoid making things that need it. Other cakes (butter, angel, sponge) are fine. Pies are fine. Laminated pastry is fine. Even popovers are fine. Genoise is a bust. Oh well, we all have our talents and our challenges.

    1. Hm. Interesting, but then génoise is based solely on air bubbles and lots of them. My guess is that you need to under-whip so you don’t get an explosive rise and then a dramatic fall. For what it’s worth! 😉

      – Joe

  12. Kouign Amann…omg…SO GOOD! I wouldn’t even attempt this one, since my oven is the pits, but there’s a local Farmers Market on Sundays that has them!

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