Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Note: This post is Thinglink-ed, pass your mouse over the images to find out more.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet.
Yes indeed there is, and it nearly drove me mad on the way to it. If you followed me on Twitter or Facebook, you couldn’t have missed the past few weeks of furious ravings, fleeting triumphs, and befuddled exasperations. Yes, I have been working on the famously fickle canelé (sometimes also spelled cannelés). And not just any canelé, mind you, but the Perfect Canelé. The one that has the perfectly, evenly baked crust the color of mahogany, perfectly, darkly caramelized but without even a hint of burnt. The one that’s crisp and shiny from just the right application of beeswax (yes, that’s what I said), contrasted with the creamy, custardy, sweetly addictive interior. The perfect canelé is what a crème brûlée wants to be when it grows up.
No, I wasn’t inventing a new recipe for it. And I surely didn’t invent the pastry itself. The Bordelais did it ages ago. Though how exactly it came about is still subject to debate. In fact even the name, and how many n’s precisely in the correct spelling is subject to passionate debate. I could recount the whole story, but I know you could google just as well as I do. So why don’t you just go read it yourself over at Wikipedia?
If you’re looking for a canelé recipe, the interweb is littered with them. Blogs have done it. Chow made a video about a search for one. The Chowhounds got a madness-inducing yet oddly mesmerizing thread on it. So did the discussion forum eGullet. Paula Wolfert, who could be called the goddess of the canéles herself, has a SIX-page recipe on it in her fabulous book The Cooking of Southwest France. She also generously published a truncated version of it on her website. My personal God of All Things Pastry Pierre Hermé has no fewer than three recipes published in his various books, including one made of chocolate (in his chocolate book with another one of my favorite authors Dorie Greenspan.) You could even watch a French (French-Canadian?) pastry chef make the canelés on YouTube. Though frankly judging from the results at the end of the video I wouldn’t recommend it.
The problem is, not one, none of it, worked for me reliably and perfectly. Not even when I followed each to the letter. Canelés are famously tricky to make, but it’s not until I tried that I realized how befuddling they truly were. All the recipes are deceptively simple, and not even that different from one another. Basically a sort of custard made of scalded milk, eggs, sugar, flour, and flavored with vanilla and rum, which is then bake in special tin-lined copper molds made specifically for the pastry.
One rather odd recipe, originally attributed to Michel Roux then later to Nick Malgieri, calls for condensed milk and milk powder, which made me suspect that it’d been created during a rather lean time in France, the war perhaps? Living now in time of abundance, I prefer fresh and less processed ingredients. I gave it a try anyway, just for the sake of research. It turns out pretty canelés, though strangely cakey rather than properly custardy. I also didn’t particularly like the flavor, so that was the end of that. Now I need to figure out what to do with all this non-fat milk powder I have left over!
The problem I had with the rest of the recipes was not so much the flavor. How could you go wrong with milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and especially the rum? But it’s in the consistency of the baking. I had the darnest time trying to produce the “perfect” canelés every time. The problems are also not recipe specific. I’ve had the same “soufflé” problem, for example, on pretty much all the recipes I tried – that’s when the batter expands too much during baking that it rises up and out of the molds, only to collapse into a royal mess the oven.
So I began to focus more on the method rather than the recipe. I tried changing the eggs to equal amount in yolks only, but found the results too eggy to my taste. Belinda, the pastry chef at Manresa cautioned me not to whisk the batter, despite what most recipes said. That made a huge difference, I now stir, and very gently. By accident I also discovered that even the age of the eggs made a difference. In the end, I settled on a slight adaptation of the ingredient proportions in one of Pierre Hermé’s published recipe, but tweaked the process rather heavily, borrowing from Paula Wolfert’s sage advice and also from that maddening Chowhound thread.
Perhaps the toughest part to work on was the heat. I found that baking at a very long period at a very high temperature produced canelés that were so burnt the crust was practically carbonized. Over the last few weeks I’ve been playing with different variables, producing canelés in all shades of a rainbow, making so many befuddling mistakes it drove me to the brink of insanity. But I stuck with it. Whether it was stubbornness or madness, I stuck with it. And you know what, I got it. Finally. Allow me a minute to bask in my own personal glory. C’est moi qui l’ai fait!
I’m going to try and explain my method to you the best I could. And let me warn you I’ll be wordy. This is going to be my Pad Thai for Beginners tutorial all over again. And just like the Pad Thai recipe, I hope that this canelé recipe will prove to be useful to just as many of you.
So, are you ready to give it a try? I hope I haven’t scared you off from making canelés all together. Really, please don’t. As you could see success is entirely possible! Just do it!
Let’s begin with a few important things you need to keep in mind in your quest for the perfect canalé.