I'm typing this post from the floor of my kitchen, where I've been sitting for the past 30 minutes with my forehead pressed against the glass of my oven door. As I write, it's 7 AM on a Saturday, and this post was due days ago. It's been three weeks since I began working on canelé for my column, and this is what they've reduced me to: crazed, unable to pull myself away, and struggling to put down words that might help you, gentle reader, avoid the madness to which this pastry has driven me.
Up until a few months ago, canelés were just the stuff of pastry legend, known only by their reputation for being fussy and difficult to make in that just-so way. A trip to New York City's Dominique Ansel Bakery sparked my obsession with the pastry. Holding a perfect one in my hand for the first time, I could only make guesses as to how the baker had achieved such a glassy, caramelized exterior contrasted with an impossibly custardy center. Such a delicious mystery to unravel, I began daydreaming in canelé. I couldn't wait to do it myself.
It turned out, I was not alone. A Google search revealed that this was well-worn territory, and my friend MaryKate, a veteran of the pastry department of Sullivan Street Baking Co., had been at it for some time too. Since she already had the necessary equipment (a set of aluminum molds) and the knowledge she'd gained from many attempts already under her belt, she volunteered to help me get started. We had major issues with the canelés rising out of their molds, slumping over the sides, then charring bulbously on top. They were delicious, but they didn't score any points in the beauty department. I was disappointed and determined to get it right.
Weeks wore on, and I attempted canelés again and again, obsessed with perfection. I tried new batters, at all different temperatures in different parts of the oven. I tried water baths. I broke down and bought six of the damn copper molds because I had to know. I obsessed over advice generously dispensed from my pastry chef idols via Twitter, swapped secret emails with friends at the best bakeries in New York City. The advice only made things more dizzying. For every chef who swears by beeswax there is another who prefers a spritz of non-stick spray. Some tout silicone (I was out of money for a high-quality silicone mold—that will have to be a project for another pay period) others said "copper or nothing". At the end of the day, the lesson was clear; each baker has a method that works for him or her, and that's the way to canelé perfection. My method may not work for everyone, but it works for me, and I've found peace with that idea.
If you attempt canelé at home it's important to keep these principles in mind:
- A coating of beeswax and butter, frozen to the molds before baking, helps create a protective outer skin that will help protect the shape of the canelés as they bake. Beeswax can be purchased on the Internet or at the honey stand at a farmers market.
- High heat at the outset encourages skin formation, especially on the bottom of the mold. To facilitate this, bake on a stone, and preheat the baking sheet that will hold the molds.
- If the canelés rise out of the molds early on without having time to form the protective skin, they will fall over or puff out and will be unable to sink vertically back into the molds. I found it critical to watch them carefully for the first 30-45 minutes, and remove them from the oven before they rose too high in the beginning.
- Many people on the internet advise baking until they are nearly black on the tops. I advise against this;- there's a big difference between caramelized and carbonized, in flavor, texture, and appearance. I'm happy to put up with some blond patches to avoid a charred, burned bottom part.
- Copper really is the best if your goal is the perfect canelé. However, the aluminum are pretty good too, and if you're okay with canelés that are a little less that perfect, the one's baked in aluminum are still plenty delicious and cost a fraction of the price of the copper.
- Practice makes perfect, and mistakes are still delicious.
I'm proud of the final product, and glad that I will be able to sleep better having achieved it. Click through the slideshow to see some tricks and examples from what to expect during the baking process, then try it yourself, if you dare.