I certainly meant to post this last weekend, but somehow forgot. Actually, I’ve apparently forgotten more than once to post about this, but that’s another story. Here’s the subject: Canelés (also written as Cannelés), beautiful, humble little French pastries (originating in Bordeaux). FXcuisine.com describes them this way:
“In essence, it is a vamped-up crepe batter cooked in tiny copper molds until they become brown and crusty outside.”
That’s fairly accurate, though it doesn’t point out that the crusty outside is a deep brown (nearly black) caramelized wonder, while the inside remains moist, chewy, sometimes almost custard-like. They are not particularly sweet or rich (“vamped up crepe batter” is fairly accurate description), but they have a touch of vanilla to them and, as I learned later, a shot of rum. They are small — they fit in the palm of a hand — best eaten warm, and certainly must be eaten the day they are made (they can be rewarmed the next day, but the rewarmed Canelé is a pale, lifeless waste of time, as I imagine are the frozen variety I hear you can buy in France and warm when you like in your own oven).
Nope. These are an ephermeral delight. If you see a fresh one, eat one (realistically, eat 2 or 3) right then and there. You may not see one again for a long time, and the one you save for later will have lost its luster and its crunch.
Back to my story. One beautiful summer Saturday day last year (and I wish I’d recorded which one so I could celebrate Canelé Day every year), I was shopping at Killdeer Farm Stand and noticed a tray of little pastries. There were maybe 30 of them. The tray was accompanied by a small sign that identified the pastries as Cannelés Bordelais. I’d never seen anything like them before. Dark brown little towers, with fluted edges, golden brown at the top, a shiny crust. They looked interesting, but they were $1.50 a piece. I didn’t really need them. I walked past them. I picked out my lettuce or whatever other vegetables had called me to the farm stand, and went to the check out line, and then I got out of line, circled back around to the tray, and read the sign again. The sign said they had been made by a local baker who was a former pastry chef at Dean & DeLuca (the Washington D.C. branch, I believe).
Something about these little beauties intrigued me. I picked up 3. I bought them. I went to the car. During the drive from the farmstand to the Norwich Farmer’s Market (that would be less than 1/4 of a mile) I ate my first Canelé. I had to restrain myself from eating the other two immediately. I had to finish my shopping, and then I HAD to get these home to Michael so he could also try one. Why oh why didn’t I go back to the farm stand and buy the lot? Oh, I thought maybe I’d just never heard of these before because I was ignorant – I didn’t dream that I’d never heard of them before because they’re so darn rare!
I went home, I shared one with Michael, I devoured the other one. I started reading online about how to make them myself. I learned that the batter was a closely guarded secret, but many pastry chefs had figured out how to do it, and it really wasn’t complicated at all – just took a little time and patience (for one thing, to get the right texture, the batter really needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, preferably 48). The real complication is that, for authentic Canelés, you require special little copper molds that give the pastries their shape as well as the perfectly-textured crust. These molds are not easy to find, and are fairly expensive considering you want at least 6 of them to make half a batch a day (enough for one each for a small dinner party, or enough just for me if left alone with them for an hour).
Luckily, it turns out that someone makes a silicone version of the pan, which contains 8 little molds in one pan. And that version is much cheaper. I ordered one fairly immediately. And while I waited for it to arrive, I stalked the farmstand every Saturday, hoping the Canelés would be there. They never were again, at least not any Saturday I visited.
I guess you can tell that I’d now become a little obsessed with the things. I think it’s entirely my fault for just buying 3 that first time – just enough to get a taste without the satisfaction of gorging on them.
The next step was to find a good recipe, so I spent a lot of time searching online and finally found some incredibly detailed discussions about making Canelés on the Egullet forums, so I was pretty confident I had a good recipe in hand.
Next, I had to make the “white oil”, which is a mixture of melted beeswax and vegetable oil that you use to grease the molds. When you’re using the copper molds, this mixture has at least two purposes: it greases the molds so that the Canelés will be released from the molds more easily after baking, and it allows the crust to caramelize at a very high heat without burning (unlike what would happen if you used butter or plain oil). The Canelés bake at a high heat for about 2 hours (less if you use a convection oven) and they’re small (about 2.5 inches tall, maybe), so they’re taking a lot of heat for a long time. In reality, I’m not positive that using the white oil is necessary when you’re baking in silicone molds, but I do believe the wax contributes to the carmelization and flavor, so I use it. Besides, it’s cool.
The pans arrived. I made my first batch. You know what? They turned out really really good. Here’s what mine looked like:
(If you want to see the full set of “making of” pictures, you can find them here.)
They had the right texture. They had the right flavor. I had 8 to eat (and share). I was happy.
I made them again several times. Some came out better than others. I experimented with cooking times, oven modes (our oven has a few different convection settings), batter resting times, and even tried making a batch with duck eggs since one of Hyla’s teachers keeps me in supply of those incredibly rich items in the spring (let me tell you how delicious homemade vanilla ice cream is when made with duck egg yolks!). For the holidays, Michael gave me two tiny, copper Canelé molds (he both understands and enables my obsessions). I used those and I liked the results, though they were smaller than the silicone molds, so it was hard to figure out the timing for baking.
All the while, though, through all the trials and tastings, I had my doubts. Were these as good as those “original” Canelés? It had been nearly a year and I hadn’t tasted another one aside from the ones I’d baked myself. I thought they were close, but maybe I was deluding myself.
Well, this year we signed up as CSA members of Killdeer Farm and one of the big benefits I hadn’t counted on is that we get a friendly email every early Saturday morning that describes what will be on offer at the stand that weekend, including any special baked goods contributed by local bakeries and home bakers who are friends with the farm’s owner. Last Saturday morning I got the announcement I’d been waiting for: Canelés would be at the stand at 10.00 am on Sunday. Did I go? Were they there? You bet.
I bought 6 this time. I wanted more, but experience has taught me that they don’t last, so I didn’t want to buy more than we could reasonably eat in a day or two. I drove them straight home, displaying a degree of restraint I didn’t know I was capable of. We ate one each as soon as I arrived home. And you know what? They were great, but they weren’t many times greater than the ones I’ve learned to make. The one difference is that the crust was thicker and crunchier on these than on mine. I’m attributing this to the molds. Here’s what the four remaining ones looked like:
And here’s the interior of one:
I ordered 4 full-size copper molds this week. I figure I’d waited long enough.