While everyone's been busy banging on about cronuts, wonuts, and other faddish, gut-busting sweets, a classy little cake has been creeping quietly onto the racks of some of Chicago's most gifted bakers. It's called the canelé, and if you haven't yet tried it—quite understandable, since by many accounts it was a rare sight outside its native city of Bordeaux until not so long ago—you'd be well-advised to pick one up post-haste. Why?
First of all, when done well, a canelé packs a one-two wallop of flavors and textures that belies the apparent simplicity of its diminutive, fluted frame. Often its taste is likened to that of crème brûlée, and indeed both treats offer up a succession of flavors at once luxurious and comforting: burnt sugar, vanilla, rum. The canelé's texture is all its own, though, with a crunchy crust that gives way to a pillowy, egg-rich center.
What's more, the canelé is not a cake well-suited to DIY. Its production involves formidable costs, both in terms of labor (the batter requires a finely-tuned mixing technique followed by a resting period of up to two days) and equipment. Traditionally, canelés are baked in individual two-inch copper molds which are hand-coated with a layer of beeswax before each use. A cursory Amazon search turns up a price of $25 for one—one!—of these molds. (Some pastry chefs in New York claim silicone molds work, but this is still a controversial stance.) In other words, it's a cake for a true craftsman, and as such it's best left to the pros.
At present, I uncovered just four Chicago cafés producing canelés on a regular basis, but each has noticed a recent increase in demand. "People have started knowing what it is, but they still can't pronounce it," says Vincent Colombet of La Boulangerie, laughing. (For the record, it's CAN-uh-lay.) Ready to get in on the action? Below, where to sample canelés in Chicago.
Bad Wolf Coffee
Though he set up shop less than a year ago, Bad Wolf Coffee owner Jonathan Ory has quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with for his gorgeous renditions of classic French pastries like the Paris-brest and the kouign-amann. And indeed, his canelé is something like the platonic ideal of a canelé, with a caramelized exterior that's at once intensely crisp and also delicate, with an interior that's custardy but not soggy, sweet but not cloying. Despite the lavish praise these and his other pastries have lately won, when asked what makes his canelés special, Ory simply shrugs, saying, "I just try to make things that are delicious to me. If it's delicious to me, then I think it'll be delicious to everyone."
According to La Boulangerie owner Vincent Colombet, the canelé is in his blood. After all, it's one of the most celebrated traditional sweets of his home region of Bordeaux, where, he says, it's not an everyday staple, but rather a special-occasion treat. Though he believes his background gives his version (which is prepared in his central cooking facility on Elston) an edge over those of his peers, still he finds it challenging to produce an exact replica of the canelé of his youth, largely because the rum commonly used in Bordeaux is difficult to source in his adopted city. On this Yankee palate, anyway, his rendition tastes pretty darned good. If the exterior isn't as crunchy as others I tasted, it carries the nice, warm flavor of caramelized sugar, and its interior is moist, airy, and not overly sweet.
Cellar Door Provisions
By the time Cellar Door co-owner/baker Ethan Pikas has a moment to break away from the morning rush to come chat with me, I've already downed one of his dreamy canelés, which are baked to a dark, caramelized sheen and flecked through with fragrant vanilla. "So I hear these things are a pain in the ass to make," I say to him. "No, no," he assures me, and then as he begins to recount the steps—the waxing of the molds, the careful mixing (too much air in the batter and you're done for), the oven temperature adjustments—he stops and considers. "Maybe they are, actually," he laughs. Procrastinators, take heed: at present, Cellar Door's canelé mold inventory is limited to just 12, meaning that you have to get up early to get your hands on one.
The longest-established purveyor of canelés in Chicago, Floriole Café & Bakery's Sandra Holl may also be their least traditional practitioner. Holl produces her canelés without the use of beeswax, and has even been known to tweak the time-honored vanilla-rum flavor profile. (A chocolate version, for instance, makes an appearance in the café each February.) Traditional or not, her approach works. She generally bakes up 18 to 40 of the pastries each day, and occasionally has to pop a second batch into the oven mid-morning to meet demand. The specimen I sampled was golden-brown, lightly crunchy, and just faintly sweet, with a creamy core that called to mind the comforting texture of bread pudding. Can't make it to Lincoln Park? Floriole's canelé are also available at select Intelligentsia and La Colombe coffee shops around the city.