At our annual Sunday-after-Thanksgiving brunch, my neighbor described a sub-standard canelé he recently had. It was chewy! he said. And short! His indignation would have been funny if not for being so sincere.
That’s because they used the wrong flour, and probably warm butter, I told him.
It’s so cool that you know that! he says, to which I shrug. Put a less than perfect canelé in front of me and I can tell you not only exactly what went wrong, but when where and how. It’s my job, after all.
If names are destiny then I suppose it’s no surprise that I ended up being a Miller with a bakery. Though of course I’m not sure one can claim the title of baker if one bakes only one thing, which in my case is the canelé, which makes me a canulier, which is French for “obsessive personality that can only get interested in things as difficult as humanly possible“.
I kid! “Fluted” is the actual meaning of “canelé” after the design of the traditional copper molds used to make them.
So what is a canelé is a question I hear weekly even after all these years of pumping thousands into the pastryosphere. People say it’s a small world but it’s large enough to keep all those poor cupcake eaters in the dark about canelés, a situation we are striving to correct because if you’ve tasted a canelé then you know that by all rights it should be at least as plentiful not to mention as celebrated as the much more ordinary (and often disappointing) cupcake.
I have no doubt that it will be, as soon as it can get past the not-insignificant-detriments of being hard to say and even harder to make. Most bakers will not even try because the chaos and bloodshed would be sure to put them out of business, if the constant canelés shortages did not.
Like anything worth mastering, canelés (pronounced can-uh-LAY, rhymes with yay) take practice. Do not be fooled by the simplicty of the ingredients, which make for a nice mis-en-place picture that is totally misleading. The picture above, courtesy of ChefSteps, seems to be saying: let’s whip up something delicious with these simple whole ingredients!
But if you are really paying attention you can detect the pathos inherent in any canelés making endeavor – for example, the rum for this recipe is only a few scant tablespoons, yet this cook has the entire bottle on the table. That’s because he’ll be doing shots by the third ruined batch and chugging directly from the neck of the bottle by the fifth ruined batch. In fact I’ll bet if you look under the prep table you will find an entire case of rum.
Notice also that this photograph is clearly of a man. “Pastry so easy – even a guy can master it!” they seem to be saying. But note that his face is not visible, and that my friends is because it is tear-streaked, red-splotched and distorted with rage. You can sense the tension in his hands, which are ready to curl into fists.
Once you know what you’re doing , making canelés is not that difficult, as long as you are willing to show due respect to the most important ingredient, which is time.
The sugar, butter, milk, flour and vanilla will always reliably give you a great taste, but ultimately, the ingredient of time is what gives the canelé its contrasting textures of tender custard inside and crusty caramelization outside – the heart of its caneléosity.
If you are new to making canelés the bad news is you will make many mistakes and they will be ugly. Some will be caved in, some will lean drunkenly. The exteriors may look rough and pebbled, the crowns lack crisp defined peaks, the center may be collapsed and broken. You will feel humiliated by their hideousness, until you eat one…then the full despair will wash over you because it will be delicious. Totally unservable, but otherwise really excellent. Too bad after all that work only you will know.
French pastry making is unforgiving but the penance of eating your sins and starting over with a clean slate could make a religious zealot out of anyone. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you avoid the most common errors in pursuing canelé perfection:
Tip One: Don’t use melted butter, or even room temperature butter. Use cold butter, which minimizes absorption into the flour, thus helping with gluten formation and the development of structure. The end result is a better texture – custard that is dense and moist but at the same time light and fluffy.
Whether to use salted or unsalted butter depends on the humidity, frankly. You’ll have to experiment and decide for yourself.
Tip Two: Use the right flour type. Super chewy exteriors herald the wrong flour. All purpose should really be renamed All Purpose Except For Pastry, which requires pastry flour except when it requires cake flour. For canelés, a pastry, use cake flour, or live to chewily regret it.
There is only one brand of flour to use if you care about texture, and that is King Arthur flour. You may be tempted to use another brand and think you got away with it but by the texture of your custard your substandard flour shall be known. I can tell a canelé made with Giusto’s flour from a canelé made with King Arthur flour just by looking at it.
Tip Three: The milk must be heated to a precise 183 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a thermometer. Don’t let it get hotter than 183. If you step away to get a glass of water or to gaze out the kitchen window at the pigeons setting up their annual nest in the downspout of the house next door, and then come back and the thermometer reads 187, and you just go ahead with the batter making as though a colossal error has not just been made, you may think you are getting away with something but but you are not.
Canelés are patient, far more patient than you can ever hope to be. They will not reveal the too-hot milk mistake until the very end. You will watch their bottoms brown evenly and your mind will whisper yes, you got away with it. They will fall out of their molds beautifully and you will feel even more confident that you did, indeed, get away with it.
Then you will bite into one and your fecklessness with the milk will be revealed, immediately and incontrovertibly: those four extra degrees will manifest themselves as a cakey like texture which in and of itself isn’t the end of the world but let’s be frank: cake-like when one is expecting custard-like is like naugahyde when one is expecting leather, like wool when one is expecting silk.
Tip Four: Use baker’s sugar, also called caster’s sugar. NOT powdered sugar, not granulated sugar, not sugar in the raw. You want the ultra fine granules of baker’s sugar – the tiny consistent grain size mixes, blends and melts more evenly, for a more consistent and beautiful caramelization.
Tip Five: If you make a chocolate chunk canelé and use Ghirardelli chocolate, your canelés will develop a waxy sheen on the crowns after about 12 hours, because the chocolate in question has a higher paraffin content. If you want your canelés to stay elegantly shiny in any temperature, use French or Belgian chocolate.
Tip Six: Purists will try to tell you otherwise but I’m here to tell you silicone molds can produce a crunchy exterior, as long as you bake in a convection – preferably rotating – oven.
The REAL Secret
The secret of making a perfect canelé is a combination of the right ingredients, the right equipment, and the right amount of time….and most importantly of all, the willingness to spend that time in the pursuit of perfection. Most people cannot find or make the time, which will make an accomplished canulier all the more dear!