Cannelés, Bordeaux style

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I recall one Summer in France, we bought loads of these dainty little cake, a speciality of Bordeaux, and we chomped non stop on them driving across the countryside. It is a compelling pick me again taste which border a sticky gummy muffin like but tastes like a baba-au-rhum.

A few years ago, I came across this blog by Chez Pim, who recounts the complexity of making cannelés at home and gives her insider tips on how to make the perfect cannelés, such as using the right amount of beeswax to coat the moulds, freezing the copper moulds before use, and adjusting the oven temperature three times during the baking process. Despite feeling better informed about these finicky cakes, when I was done reading Pim’s post, I was exhausted and couldn’t face the idea of actually attempting the recipe; there were too many variables and I didn’t feel confident with a recipe which was so fraught with failure.

So not only was I surprised to find a recipe for cannelés in Rachel Khoo’s latest cookbook, My Little French Kitchen, but she claimed to have a foolproof recipe using … cheap silicone moulds.

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CANNELÉS
Prep time
20 mins
Cook time
1 hour 15 mins
Total time
1 hour 35 mins
Recipe adapted from My Little French Kitchen by Rachel Khoo
Serves: 16 cakes
Method
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Breton Delicious pastries

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Gâteau Breton

The moment we arrive in Brittany, we look for the next pâtisserie to pick up a local delicacy, which usually sums up in the round Gâteau Breton. ‘It makes the coffee speak’ says my husband whose sweet tooth is known to one and all. Pretending to be like an Ostrich is the best way to handle the gateau, as it is ladden with the highest load of butter next to the Gache of Vendee, I suppose. I don’t count the kilos I could gain on my hips, as it makes me feel like a plump goose ready for the ‘confit’.  Glad to find the beloved ‘Becassine’ of my childhood, Brittany and Butter rhyme an endearing tune to me…amidst the Celtic ‘cornemuse‘.

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In Brittany, local salted butter is used for absolutely everything including patisserie. A way of extolling how well fed the cows are and the quality of their milk can only win them a ‘Label Rouge’. Respect. Bow. It is exceptional.

The butter follows suit, another set of ‘Label Rouge’ again. I like my Breton butter with the ‘sel de Guerande’, smothered over a fresh baguette tradi slice with a hot cuppa. Nothing can beak that savouring those simple pleasures of life. But that this one is one of the highest quality. When you are in Brittany, you have to appreciate butter. Forget what the media pumps to us, butter is bad for us. On a high quantity, anything is disastrous. I take my butter with an appreciative attitude, thanking nature  and feeding my brain of one food, it likes best – fat. A happy and healthy brain makes a happy and smart man!

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Just savvy shopping for the best salted butter you can find – the resulting flavour depends on it and is well worth the extra expense and effort – is all that’s required for making the hands-down, will-make-you-weep, most butter-rich, splendidly short, shortbread. Ever.

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Kouign Amann

The literal meaning of the name in Breton is “butter cake” (kouign is “cake” and amann is “butter”). When made properly, the kouign amann’s seemingly simple and humble appearance belies sensational flavour and texture. Deeply caramelized and buttery, crisp without and tenderly flaky within, it is utterly addictive.

French markets … an institution!

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To understand a country’s people and culture, you need to get a glimpse of their cuisine. And to get to the bottom of it is to head to the local market. Visiting French markets when we are on holidays, is a must for me. Just like many foreign visitors might tell you, the market day is in itself an institution, it is not to be missed at any cost. We tend to collect the markets’ list from the various Tourist Offices across the small and big towns we pass by or stay close to. Now, that we have our ‘own’ market in Fontenay le Comte, our Saturday mornings are never dull.
Fontenay, Vendée

If you don’t know Fontenay, then the first thing I need to explain (apart from the fact that it’s a beautiful historic town with lots of intriguing places to explore), is that the large square which doubles up as a car park, boule pitch and all round shady retreat, sits at the top of the town, affording great views of the long, straight high street as it stretches away and which is home to some of its twice weekly market. And the square, like the town, is quintessentially French in every way with the ubiquitous Plane trees, water fountains and the higgledy, piggledy kind of parking which would torment any English parking inspector.

And as we squeezed our car into the shade of a tree and into the last inch of space left amongst the packed cars in the upper parking area, our gentle stroll down past the 10th century church, we are  greeted by the sounds of a French accordeon drifting up from the streets below along and the smell of  paella and baking and all things nice to eat, we instantly knew it was going to be a morning of heady indulgence.

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The guilty pleasure of every Francophile

The French market is a thoroughly sensory experience as you all know. There’s the African traders who have a charm of their own with their cheap trinkets and leather belts and the queue of mature ladies at the “unfeasibly  elasticated pant” and inside garb stall which will never cease to amaze me. Then there’s the compulsory tour of the inside market, with its hushed bustle, fish hall stacked high with langoustine, escaping snails and yawning fish, eyeing you from a stack of ice. While downstairs, sweet pastries, local breads and an eye startling array of cheese and cold meats quietly call you to take them home. Just outside is parked the lone fresh goat cheese seller. My husband never misses a chance to stock his alrealdy high stock at home. Probably, it makes him feel so ‘French’ to buy the quintessential goat cheese to feel he has done his bit of shopping!

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Outside, the stalls mingle with the pavement cafés, there are vegetables with more charisma than their British counterpart, spoons dripping with honey and vast vats of steaming delights which you can’t avoid lusting after, the Canbodian and Vietnamese sellers are getting bolder by their offerings, all swathed in late summer sunshine and a heady rush of bright colours, from fruits to scarves, spices, bright pottery, flowers to hand woven baskets from Madagascar.

The basket or panier is very French, one has to have one on the arm when you go to the market. Any other bag, least a supermarket plastic shopping bag would be simply sacrilege. Women and men carried or pulled them with the practiced air that comes from shopping for food at the peak of freshness, season after season. Staples are rows of traditional baskets with leather handles. Fancier styles come in bright colors of various sizes and shapes. Some have cloth drawstrings inside – perfect for use as a summer purse. I have added several of both types to my collection over the years and love how each one reminds me of a wonderful trip or of the marvelous market goods that were carried in it. Being in Dar es Salaam these days, I have not refrained myself from buying more …

Not far are some Brits quietly displaying the Indian spices, bottled pickles, ready made Indian sauces, Roghan Ghosh, Dopiaza, Tikka Masala, Marmite, Mustard and others, while large packets of Popaddums get crisper under the French sun, aligned are also some home baked cakes and muffins which say why the lady is not present at the stall. Too early labour, she is now catching up on her sleep.

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Ao Dai … Vietnamese Dress

After many years living in Vietnam, I came to take the ‘AwZai’- Ao Dai for granted until I stumbled upon Benny Hanigal’s photos.  They brought memories back, dear friends, busy and noisy Hanoi, the Old Quarters, my haunts in Don Xuan market for silk, weddings with fairy like decorations amidst chaos, balmy evenings at Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum, detour from the tourist infected Temple of Literature, tranquil waters of Tay Ho, friendly faces on To Ngoc Van street, street food mecca, ‘you can get anything you want’ in Hanoi, stilettoe perched on bike ladies, and above all the Ao Dai.

Quintessentially Vietnamese, although not worn as often these days as in the past. The classic white Ao Dai is still popular as a school uniform in some areas, while red, yellow, pink and other colors are worn on special and more formal occasions.

Embroidered, silky, gauzy, satiny, or plain white, the Ao Dai is not na easy garb to adopt to your daily runs but is sure a stunningly elegant view on the gracefully slim Hanoiians.

Flower Girl – Hanoi

Ladies Descending – Emperor Minh Mang Mausoleum Grounds, Hue

Flower Girl 2 – Hanoi

Under the Banyan Tree – Temple of Literature – Hanoi

Friends – Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Lovely with Incense – Temple of Literature – Hanoi

Mekong Taxi – Mekong Delta

Mekong Girls at Floating Market

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Delta Girl – Soc Trang Province

Ancient Arch – Imperial City of Hue

The Girl and the Emperor – Minh Mang Mausoleum – Hue

Minh Mang Mausoleum Grounds – Hue

Visions in Red & Yellow – Ha Long Bay

Visions in Red & Yellow 2 – Ha Long Bay

Two Ladies Holding “Non La”- Imperial City of Hue

The Emperor’s Forest – Hue

Hanoi Model – Temple of Literature

High School Girls in Uniform – Nha Nam

The Gaze – Temple of Literature – Hanoi

Day Dream Bridge – Hue

Reflections – Temple & Tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt – Saigon

Lady in Red – Temple & Tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt – Saigon

Strolling the Imperial City – Hue

Timor Leste … Christ’s beach

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Staying in Dili, Timor Leste working for the UN after the referendum was an eye opener for me. I discovered what a ravaged country by conflict looks like, I realised that each child I saw was an orphan. Beach shacks were not fanciful dwellings but real homes. I understood that the sea we take for granted gives the only food the local people could find apart from foraging. I became friends with childrens who practically spend all their time on the beach with some lucky dogs who wee alive, and some bold pigs who crossed roads with their cute tiny piglets.

Life came to a stall, we lived in a different bubble from the outside world.

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In front of the hotel we stayed in, was the beach. My first cognition with a black sand one. It felt strange, unreal. Me, so used to my native island’s fine white sandy beaches.

However, we built our days over challenges and had our delightful time going to the white sandy stretches by Jesus, as everybody calls it. It became our Sunday R&R spot.

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Now, where do you find white sandy beaches in Dili?

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Heading east out of Dili you can either go over the hill and far away or you can continue on the Metiaut road until it falls into the ocean at the feet of Jesus.

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Cristo Rei is a giant statue of Christ on top of the hill at Cape Fatucama (the furthest point north of Dili’s bay). He stands with open arms on top of a globe. It was given to Timor by the Indonesians during occupation. Not wanting to lose the chance to squeeze some symbolism in, the 27m of the statue’s height was supposed to represent the 27 provinces of Indonesia, including what was then East Timor and now Timor-Leste. Also noted symbolically is the fact that Christ holds his arms open towards Jakarta rather than Timor.

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At the base of the hill there is a car park, amphitheatre and small shelters for picnics and gatherings. The initial path climbs past the 14 Stations of the Cross in long gradual steps. You reach the saddle of the hill where you can see west to the Cristo Rei beach and east to what most people call ‘back beach’. There is another wide set of stairs that takes you to a level area with an altar for public masses. The final climb is up a series of short steep steps that may require a pause in conversation to hide any shortness of breath.

At the top there is an observation area with 360 degree views and the copper height of Christ watching down on you. You’ll see tourists taking photos, joggers stretching, walkers wiping sweat from their brows and highly pregnant women hoping to get things started. At the right time of year you can see whales and every day you can watch the show-off sunset that doesn’t lose any of its beauty, no matter how many times you see it.

This strip has a coastal walkway, some sun shelters, trees, a few cafes and even accommodation. The water is warm and shallow for 10-15m before it drops off to become darker, cooler and occasionally corralled. The water is full of people swimming, splashing and paddling surf skis. The shore is lined with forts, sandcastles, younger siblings and watchful parents. Most people head home around 5pm but those who stay reposition their seats so that nothing comes between them and another perfect sunset.

On a clear night the changing reds, oranges and pinks glow on and on. Then for a moment you turn away and when you look back the show is over for another day.

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