Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cannelle et Vanille Solves Basque Country Mystery

In September 2008 I blogged about my trip to Bilbao, Spain where I discovered a hard to pass up breakfast treat.
This is a photo of the treats from our Bilbao trip.

Morning after morning we would have what appeared to be a soft yeast roll usually shaped like a round bun. The filling appeared to be a whipped cream. Although it looked like it might be a gut buster, the roll was incredibly light and not overly sweet.

A kindly caf√© owner told me the buns were called bollo de mantequilla or in English, ball of butter. Now, doesn’t the Spanish name sound so much better than butter ball?!

In my blog entry I chronicled my attempt to find a recipe for these delicious treats. I was unsuccessful in doing so and the recipe remained a mystery until I happened upon the solution quite by accident. I had heard that The Times of London had recently published a list on their online site of the “50 of the world’s best food blogs.”

I checked out their list and saw that the blog cannelle et vanille was written by a pastry chef, Aran Goyoaga, who was from the Basque country.

Since the blog name was French, I assumed she was French Basque. Bilbao is in the Spanish Basque country but I thought she might be able to help me since the French Basque country is so close to Spain.

I emailed Aran Goyoaga, creator of cannelle et vanille, a fan email and asked her that while I knew she must be French Basque, had she by chance ever heard of bollo de mantequilla and if so, could she possibly help me find a recipe.

Much to my delight she emailed me back and said that in fact, she is from the Spanish Basque country and she is from a small town outside of Bilbao!

In one sentence she solved the mystery of bollo de mantequilla:
“Bollos de mantequilla are brioche dough filled with plain Swiss or Italian buttercream,” explained Goyoaga.

What?? I was so surprised – these delicious rolls did not bear any resemblance to the brioche I’ve had in the U.S. and to me, buttercream was something you used to frost a cake – brioche and buttercream sound like a very heavy and sweet combination but the rolls I remembered were anything but that.

In fact, I wasn’t much of a brioche fan. Brioche always looked so pretty in the pastry case but was usually dry and uninteresting. A croissant usually won out if it was a choice between the two.

Goyoaga nicely gave me two links on her blog – one for brioche and one for the buttercream. Her brioche recipe was adapted from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Although I had made brioche once before with pastry chef Jim Dodge, I was pretty much a novice. Goyoaga’s recipe looked a bit complicated to me.

I decided to turn to the well-know culinary teacher Peter Reinhart and his book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, to guide me in my first real attempt at brioche. If successful, I would try Goyoaga’s recipe next time.

Reinhart gives three recipes for brioche, which he amusingly calls Rich Man’s, Middle-Class, and Poor Man’s Brioche in his book.

The difference is the percent of butter to flour ratio. I chose the Middle-Class Brioche recipe, which has a 50% butter to flour ratio. I thought it might be easier to handle than the Rich Man’s Brioche recipe which has 87% butter to flour ratio but a bit tastier than the Poor Man’s Brioche which has a 23% butter to flour ratio.

As most bakers know, making brioche is an all day affair. I started early in the day and prepped my sponge. My final product was out of the oven at about 8 p.m. that night.

The dough came together beautifully. It did indeed look like a big slab of butter! The only real difficulty I had was in shaping the dough into the ball (bollo) shape. I decided to make several different sizes since I didn’t know how big the final rise would be.

After an hour I peeked at my dough – the balls had flattened somewhat and had unfortunately, risen into each other. I gently separated them and placed them on additional cookie sheets to finish rising. Not surprisingly, the dough was not happy to be handled in the process of rising.

In the end, I ended up with about five out of ten balls that looked like what I remembered from my Bilbao breakfasts.

Next, I turned to the filling. I had recently met master baker Flo Braker at an author event for her new book, Baking for All Occasions. What a delight she is but more about her in another posting. Her first cookbook, The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, included a step-by-step guide for making Italian meringue buttercream.

Under Braker’s gentle but exacting guidance, my buttercream came together beautifully.

But I was still skeptical just how these two luscious ingredients could become the addictive treat I remembered from Bilbao.

I gently cut my brioche rolls in half and thickly spread the buttercream on the bottom half. I sprinkled powdered sugar and a bit of baker’s sugar on top.

Although a bit rough around the edges, my rolls looked pretty good. But what about the taste? Would it taste like a frosted yeast roll or an oily tub of butter?

I gingerly cut one in half and took a bite. I was completely amazed to once again taste the treat I had first experienced in Bilbao! As you can see by the photo, they are pretty close to the ones we had in Bilbao.

This is one Basque mystery that is solved.

Thank you Aran Goyoaga, creator of cannelle et vanille – I truly could not have done this without you!


  1. Wow, this is fantastic! I am so happy that you were able to make it AND turn out just as you had remembered. I am soon traveling to Bilbao (in a week to be exact) and trust me, I will have these for breakfast every morning as my family's pastry shop makes the best bollos around.

    by the way, just a clarification, I am indeed female! Aran is short for Arantzazu which is a very popular basque name.


  2. Thanks for all your help. Gender mistake fixed! I may have figured out bollo de mantequilla but obviously Basque language is still a mystery to me! Have a good trip!