I wish I could say that I first tasted cannelés in France, escaping from a Bordeaux bakery with a glossy brown cake that could easily fit in the palm of my hand and eating it while it was still warm. This is where my boyfriend had his cannelé epiphany. He claims it was so good that it just isn’t possible for any other cannelé, anywhere outside of Bordeaux, to compete.
The idea of something this perfect is daunting, if only because when I discovered cannelé, the small French cake with a dark, caramelized exterior and a rich, moist, custard-like interior, I swooned. What then, might happen to me in Bordeaux? A fainting spell caused by a French sweet? Not pretty.
If you haven’t had them, cannelés are addictively good. Yes, the grandiose French treats with their flaky crusts, crèmes, and berries are spectacular and sophisticated. But cannelés are austere and lovely. They are off-sweet and perfect with a cup of coffee, tea, or even a glass of wine. I could eat them morning noon and night.
The cannelé has a past brimming with lore. Nobody really knows when th first cannelé was made, but we do know where: the Bordeaux region in France. The timeline is shaky – some accounts put their origin in the 14th century, others in the 18th century. Most agree that the cakes were first baked in a convent where Pre-French Revolution, nuns made cakes using egg yolks that were donated by local winemakers who needed the egg whites to clarify their wines.
In the 1980s, when the French became concerned that the cannelé would be bastardized by global food trends they formed a fraternity of bakers. Their aim was to protect the integrity of the cannelé. Much like Champagne which can only be referred to as such if it is from the region, Canelé de Bordeaux is the cake found in Bordeaux, whereas cannelé bordelais (note the second and intentional ‘n’) is the slightly illegitimate treat found in bakeries beyond.
My interest in cannelé grew upon discovering that the method for baking cannelé is just as mystifying as the cake’s history. Cannelé require specialty molds, ideally copper ones that are often expensive and hard to come by. There are alternatives – fluted molds made from tin and from silicon. It is widely believed that the silicon molds simply won’t do for making cannelé, but I’ve found that with the right recipe, they can be used with good results.
Cannelé also require time. Once the batter is made it must be chilled for at least twenty-four hours before baking. The cannelé are then baked in a very hot oven for close to two hours – this creates the dark, chewy, caramelized crust. And oh yes, the molds must be seasoned with a mix of beeswax and oil before baking the cannelé. This is especially important if you are using copper or tin molds.
Daunting? A little. The first time I tried making cannelé it was a disaster. The high heat of the oven set off the smoke alarm in my old apartment again and again. And then there was the question of the recipe itself – I tried one that made the cannelé too fluffy and cakey; the outside was merely a lovely amber color. I wanted my cannelé dense and dark on the outside, custardy on the interior.
Finally I found my recipe, and my method, which I will gladly share with you. But I’ll also trade another secret: recently Trader Joe’s began carrying cannelé in their frozen dessert section. I didn’t want to like them, really I didn’t. But when warmed in a toaster oven for a few minutes they really are good. This is a fine starting point for those who are un-initiated to cannelé or who are simply not obsessed enough to spend an entire weekend making and waiting for the perfect French cake.
Based on a recipe by Paula Wolfort in The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook
1 vanilla bean
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and diced
3/4 cup cake flour
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons superfine or baker’s sugar (if you can’t find it, simply pulse regular sugar in a food processor before starting)
4 extra-large egg yolks
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
Oil for brushing molds (see note at end of recipe)
1. Rinse a saucepan with cold water. Add milk and set over low heat. Split vanilla bean and add to milk. Heat to 183 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer, about 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place the butter, cake flour and salt in a food processor: pulse until combined. Scatter the sugar on top: pulse until mixed. (This recipe will be much easier to execute if using a food processor.)
3. Add the egg yolks; pulse until the mixture begins to tighten—the dough will resemble thick, golden paste.
4. Remove vanilla bean and scrape vanilla seeds into milk before discarding. With the food processor on, quickly and steadily pour the hot milk into the mixture in the food processor. Pulse until combined. Strain batter through a very fine sieve into a clean container, pressing any congealed yolk through. Stir in the rum, add vanilla and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate 24 to 48 hours.
5. If using copper or tin molds: About 6 hours before serving, lightly brush the interior of each cannelé mold with “white oil.” Set crown side up on paper towels to avoid the pooling of oil in crevices. Place the molds in the freezer before baking. If using silicon molds, I found that brushing each mold with canola oil and then placing the molds in the freezer, as suggested, helps create that coveted dark crust.
6. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place chilled molds on baking sheet. Stir the batter and then fill mold almost to the top. Place on lower oven rack. Bake until the cannelés are deep, deep brown in color, about two hours. (If using convection, which I highly recommend, bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour and fifteen minutes). Remove from oven.
7. If using copper or tin molds: One by one, use an oven mitt to grasp each hot mold, rap against a hard surface to loosen the cake, and tip out onto cooling rack. If they resist unmolding, bake 5 to 10 minutes longer and, if necessary, use a toothpick to loosen. If using silicon molds: cool in molds before removing (this helps cannelé to retain their shape). Let cool to remove temperature before serving.
Cannelé are believed to be best 1 to 5 hours after baking. To refresh, heat cannelé in 450 degree oven for five minutes. Baked cannelé can be frozen (individually wrapped in plastic wrap) for up to one month. Remove from freezer and while still frozen, bake unwrapped at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 30 minutes, bake again for 5 minutes. Remove and let cool until exteriors harden.
To make "white oil": Place 1 ounce round of bee's wax in a 1 pint glass measuring cup; melt in a microwave. While still warm, gradually stir in enough safflower oil to make a whitened mixture, light enough to coat the back of a spoon). Cool to room temperature; store in the glass container at room temperature. To coat pre-seasoned cannelé molds with "white oil": use dabs of warmed oil to coat the interior and shake out excess.
To season new molds: heat oven to 350 degrees; wash the molds in soapy water; rinse; dry thoroughly; heavily grease the interiors with vegetable shortening or oil; place on sheet tray; place in oven 1 hour; remove from oven; place upside down on a rack; return to oven; heat 15 minutes; turn off heat; leave in the oven until room temperature.
After baking, don't wash the interiors of the molds. To remove baked debris place the molds in a moderate oven; heat until debris burns. Remove debris with paper towels. Store lightly oiled molds in a cool location.
Thank you for sharing, Anne! We are huge fans of cannelés too, and this recipe will probably be tried out very, very soon!
(Images: Anne Zimmerman)