When Philippe, a meticulous and efficient Frenchman, purchased the quirky neighborhood cafe in our hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, he had the good sense not to change the popular, mostly vegetarian lunch fare. Instead, his signature was small: he introduced fresh-baked cannele.
Philippe spoke with a distinct French accent and wore perfectly pressed shirts buttoned to the top. His miniature desserts echoed his style: unadorned and executed with perfection.
Each day, he placed a tray of petite pastries next to the giant blueberry muffins and glazed donuts. To help customers understand what they were, he added a sign: “Cannele, from Bordeaux, pronounced (KHAN-lay).”
One day, curious about this new dessert, I ordered one to split with Paul. I cut sideways into the cake, exposing the custardy center, and took a bite. The subtle vanilla scent gave way to a sweet and eggy flavor like a crème brulee but the texture was chewy, like cake. I had never tasted anything like it.
It took awhile to break through Philippe’s somewhat cool exterior and the automatic cordial distance he placed between himself and all customers, but we eventually became friends. He would stop by our table to discuss recipes, France, politics, or to reflect, amused, about how American his teenage kids were.
Philippe eventually gave up the café but his canneles left a mark on us. That first bite of the custardy, sweet pastry launched a long, often failed, journey to replicate the dessert at home. I’m not a baker, and the number of variables astounded me: the type of molds (and how you greased them), the cooking time, the oven temperature, the type of oven, and the type of flour all made a huge difference in how the canneles turned out.
Now, one trip to Paris, four years, two sets of molds, and twelve batches later, I have a recipe I'm happy with thanks in part to Philippe, who gave us a few small tips along the way.
The biggest barrier for me was the type of mold. The classic recipes call for metal molds (steel or copper) that need to be greased with beeswax. When I tried to do this, I used the only kind of beeswax my health food store offered: straight from the honeycomb. It was a disaster. The beeswax was a mess, and the cakes were still impossible to get out of the molds.
Philippe said that he used silicone molds and didn’t bother with beeswax. None of my local kitchen stores carried silicon cannele molds. Luckily, on a trip to Paris a couple of years ago, my husband and I found them and immediately snatched them up.
The silicone molds don't offer the same rigid shape of the metal molds, but they eliminate the need for messy beeswax. You just need to butter them, then wipe out any excess butter with a paper towel (if butter gathers at the bottom, it may burn the delicate batter).
The other suprising variable was convection versus regular heat. Every time I baked the canneles using the regular “bake” setting on my oven, the little cakes would fall midway through cooking. They were tasty but short!
When I tried the same recipe using convection heat, they kept their height and shape better.
Here’s the version that works for me:
Makes about 16
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup pastry flour
1 extra large egg yolk
2 extra large eggs
3 tablespoons premium rum
In a saucepan, combine the milk and vanilla. Bring the milk to the scalding point over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add three tablespoons butter. Set aside until it’s lukewarm.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and pastry flour. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, eggs, and rum. Stir the egg mixture into the sugar and flour mixture and then mix in the lukewarm milk. Strain into a third bowl or container with a chinoise. Cover and refrigerate overnight (about 12 hours).
Take the mixture out of the refrigerator one hour before baking. Using the convection setting on your oven, preheat to 425F. Butter the molds with melted butter, and then wipe out any excess butter with a paper towel (the molds should be VERY lightly coated). Place the molds on a cookie sheet and fill them three-quarters full.
Bake for an hour and 15 minutes. Let cool for about 15 minutes, then flip the molds upside down and pat the bottom of the molds until the cakes pop out.
The Bordeaux brotherhood of caneles dropped the second 'n' in the spelling of this dessert in 1985 to distinguish the Bordeaux version against those made elsewhere. The official Bordeaux recipe has been written down and locked in the vault of Daniel Antoine, who operates "Patisserie Antoine" in Bordeaux. The photo, above, is taken at a bakery in Saint Emilion.
A street vendor sells caneles in the city center in Bordeaux. Check out more photos of Bordeaux here.