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How a Guy From Frankford Perfected a French Pastry (and why you'll fall in love with it, too)

There was good reason Frankford-bred Gil Ortale was a little miffed with the folks at the Washington D.C. City Paper this past spring. They posted a video online that appears to break down the complexities and dreamy taste of the canele, a traditional, cylinder-shaped French pastry that is oft-likened to a portable crème brulee.

Ortale called out San Francisco Tasting Table editor Scott Hocker, who narrated the video, in a blog post and a letter to the D.C. publication. It wasn't merely a Frankford boy getting a little chippy over a couple tablespoons of butter. Ortale was defending the canele (pronounced cahn-eh-LAY), its techniques and its authenticity as if he grew up in Bordeaux, not Northeast Philly. Ortale should know. He wears the tears shed over the months perfecting the canele as salty badges of pride--finding the right temperature, the right stove, the right recipe, the right vessel in which to bake it.

'I would literally sit there and sulk," remembers Ortale of the frustrations he endured.

Ortale, as you might suspect, is not the kind of guy to be bullied by a French pastry or an overconfident food editor. At 53, he looks at least 10 years younger, thanks in part to ditching smoking and his gut and taking up boxing with some neighborhood friends in the last few years. The canele represents a lot for Ortale, a food industry veteran who has managed food service operations at some of the region's largest companies (think Cigna, Thomas Jefferson University) and learned culinary techniques in some of Greater Philadelphia's most inspiring kitchens (think the Frog Commissary). Ortale's thriving full-time venture, Market Day Canele, sells up to 2,000 of them every week at farmers markets and specialty food retailers throughout the region, making him one of the top sellers and authorities on the pastry in the country. But the canele is hardly Ortale's mid-life crisis. It's part of one man's transformation, requiring the kind of attention and skill that Ortale had to dig deep for, not long after suffering unimaginable loss and grief.

"They're a pretty pure expression of the kind of person I am," he says.

Ortale was a Temple University junior when he started cooking at the Frog, Steven Poses' legendary kitchen, at 15th and Locust, in the early 1980s. He was hired as a prep cook there and worked his way through the kitchen hierarchy. After a few years, he started a stand at the Reading Terminal Market, where he worked a wood-burning charcoal grill that was wildly popular, but couldn't sustain beyond the lunch rush. Eventually he became the corporate chef for Cigna, which had put a huge premium on employee health and wellness and invested a lot of resources into its own food service operation by the 1990s. Ortale managed five chefs and 60 cooks. When the health insurance industry started to slump, Ortale's operation was outsourced, and he went to work for Aramark, which did not satisfy his professional needs. So Ortale left and took some time off before making a complete left turn, hooking up with a former catering client to run a recruiting service, but that eventually fizzled, and by August of 2001, he was out of work again, wondering what he was going to do next.

Ortale's brother, meanwhile, had it all. Peter Ortale was an athletic, well-liked 37 year-old working as a securities broker in New York. Peter was a lacrosse standout at Duke University and had played for various pro teams in the U.S. and Australia. He was working for Euro Brokers Inc., on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, and perished when terrorists attacked the building.

"Getting fired and him being killed really rocked my world," Ortale says. "Grief is hard to communicate. It was so extensive, soul-shifting. You come out of it with your feet more firmly planted, and you want to do things that count because you never know when your last day is."

The next few years were a blur—grief was indeed that extensive for Ortale and his family. Eventually he started working with an artist friend making organic beeswax candles, which proved more therapeutic than profitable. Around Halloween, 2008, Ortale stumbled across a recipe for an uncommon French pastry that, (disputed) legend has it, was first made in a Bordeaux convent (hence the come-hither nun and beeswax that make up the Market Day logo). He heard how difficult they were to make, so naturally he tried for himself. When his girlfriend Nem Ngo brought some to work at Lacroix, some French co-workers paid the ultimate compliment--"nearly as good as Bordeaux." Six months later, Ortale was bringing them to the venerable Headhouse Farmers Market in Society Hill, and he had a new full-time job.

It wasn't, however, that easy. There were a few challenges, and finding the right recipe is not one of them. They're all basically the same: some use cold milk, others use egg yolks only, and the differences are marginal. The oven in which you bake them, however, is critical. Ortale's technique is to start the oven very hot for 10-20 minutes and bake the caneles until they start rising from the mold, then lowering the temperature. As his work on the canele began shifting from hobby to money-maker, more challenges arose. Making a dozen is one thing. Making 500 is another, and that transition also took quite a bit of work. Ortale started using individual silicon molds (coated with a thin film of beeswax and butter) to get the crust just right with the proper amount of caramelization. The French would argue that copper molds should be used for a truly traditional canele.

"In my opinion, you can't tell the difference. An excellent silicon-made canele is easily the peer of an excellent copper canele, and I'm pretty sure no one makes more canele in the U.S. than me," Ortale says.

But what does it taste like? Truth be told, a croissant is probably trickier to make, but a canele's pleasures are more esoteric. The word 'canele' is French for 'striated,' or 'channeled,' and gives the pastry a multi-tiered party for the senses starting with its luscious, shiny, and brown appearance. The crisp outer shell and delicate interior 'cake,' provides an awesome textural experience. Flavor is reminiscent of crème brulee. This combination, plus a dusting of powdered sugar, helps widen the appeal. Some, like French pastry legend Pierre Herme, insist that caneles are at their best within 24 hours of coming out of the oven. This time of year, they're probably good for up to two days, says Ortale, although many tell him they've fallen in love with four-day old caneles.

"There's a reference point for every culture," says Ortale. "They have a broad based appeal and I'm always surprised at the different people who like them, from sophisticated Bordeaux guys to a kid from North Philly," he says.

When he first started making caneles for profit, he made about 15 liters of batter. Now he makes about 100 (nearly enough to fill a wine barrel, he notes). His operation is pretty much him and Ngo, his girlfriend of eight years, baking out of a rented Manayunk kitchen Friday and Saturday nights. She handles many of the administrative tasks and delivery. Market Day is winding down its busy season, delivering to the University of Pennsylvania on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday and hitting farmers markets on Thursday (Fairmount), Saturday (Clark Park, Fitler Square and Rittenhouse) and Sunday (Headhouse), with hopes of expanding into the Main Line.

Market Day has also teamed up with Joe Cesa, of Philly Fair Trade Roasters, selling each other's products at farmers markets and covering more ground. Ortale also sells a variety of gourmet caramels, another notoriously tricky product to churn out. He is cautious about further expansion, though, realizing some limitations in both the mass production and mass appeal necessary to sustain significant growth beyond regional saturation. That seems OK by Ortale, who is content to enjoy the farmers markets where he sells his wares, working with his girlfriend, and continuing to perfect an art that is lost on many.

Says Ortale: "The canele is never going to be the cupcake in Philly, but I find something in baking caneles, even though they're just a pastry."

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


Gil Ortale and Nem Ngo on a canele night in their Manayunk kitchen

A look inside the canele reveals perfection

Ortale lines the specially shaped Canele molds with butter

Ortale fills the small canele molds

The canele gets a break to cool

After some more time in the oven, it's the final cool-down for these caneles

Some confectioners sugar tops off the Market day Canele

All photographs by Michael Persico

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