Canoodling with Caneles
January 10, 2011
I am in love — with a dessert! Not surprising with my sweet tooth, but I can’t believe I made it four-plus decades and living/traveling on four continents without ever having the pleasure of meeting this lovely French specialty, the Canele.
It’s like creme brulee in a caramelized crust. A magical custard baked in its own dish. Crunchy on the outside. Creamy in the center. Absolutely delicious.
I first came across them at the Oyster and Champagne benefit for Slow Food Eugene that I attended this past summer when I brought a “doggy bag” of them home for my husband. He raved about them for days. I intended to seek out the patisserie that made them — Eugene’s Caramel French Patisserie — but never quite got around to it. And then, one day, there they were, right in front of me, at the holiday version of the Eugene Farmer’s Market’s. For five weekends of the Holiday Market, I visited the French proprietress, Barbara, and loaded up on multiple packets of these addicting delicacies, and they would all disappear within minutes of my arrival at home. Then the Holiday Market ended, and my husband and I were left going through withdrawals. I started researching recipes immediately.
Talk about overwhelming. There are dozens and dozens of recipes out there. Many of them use the same few ingredients, but the ratios are vastly different, as is the method of preparing the batter. Then there was the slight discrepancy in cooking temperatures and the huge discrepancy in cooking times — from 50 minutes all the way up to two hours — both versions at 400 degrees! Why? I’m guessing it’s because there are a lot of people out there trying to get this just right. I’ve never come across a dessert that has so much history and secrecy (the official recipe is reportedly locked in a vault in Bordeaux). Nor have I come across a dessert that could be so expensive to make! Twenty bucks for a single copper and tin mold at Amazon. !!! Fortunately, there’s a less expensive silicone version. Purists would surely scoff at the idea of using it, but at 1/8 of the price, we decided we could make do — at least until we find ourselves in France again and can import our own copper molds.
All that was left was to pick a recipe and start baking!
So far, we’ve experimented only twice. Although neither was perfect, they were both a pleasure to consume. First thing we realized is that one silicone mold (8 pastries) would not suffice. The folks at Amazon were happy to oblige.
The ingredients are basic: milk, sugar, eggs, butter, flour, fresh vanilla bean, and rum — the latter being the only thing I didn’t have on hand, so I substituted amaretto. The first recipe I tried called for nearly a cup of butter — so much that the resulting caneles ended up being boiled in butter. Not that that’s an entirely bad thing, it just wasn’t the result we were looking for. We ate them, of course, and enjoyed every bite, but I started sifting through additional recipes online. The next version we tried called for only 3 tablespoons of butter, which worked out well. But it also called for a little less flour, which left the custard a little on the dense and moist side. I also think it could use a whole vanilla bean rather than just a half. And I’d like to have some rum for the next try, but I’ll have to decide whether to go for the 1 tablespoon in some recipes or the 4 tablespoons in others.
I should note that I’m not trying to improve on a centuries-old recipe — especially since I doubt any of the recipes online will perfectly match that secretive concoction. But I do plan on experimenting with versions and tweaking them until I come up with a personal favorite.
One thing I noticed is that the pastries aren’t as tall as they should be (and therefore denser), which I have a feeling is due to the custard not holding to the silicone mold as it bakes as it might on the copper and tin molds. Until I have $300 to invest in the fancy molds, I can deal with dense. On this last batch, I took one tray out of the oven after 80 minutes at 400 degrees (left) and baked the second tray in for the full two hours (right). (Other recipes call for 75 minutes at 375 on convection.)
My husband preferred the less-cooked version; I preferred the more-cooked, crustier version. Perhaps next time I’ll try somewhere in the middle…
No matter what, all 15 of them went down very, very easily over the course of an afternoon and evening. (Yes, 15 of them, the entire batch, between the two of us! Perhaps we shouldn’t have procured that second mold. I’m writing this morning while exercising off a small portion of the calories from my treadmill desk — 342 calories burned and counting!) We tried them 1/2 an hour out of the oven and again at one hour (supposedly the preferred cooling time).
The few that remained after dinner, even though well past that 1-hour “optimum” cooling time, were perfect when paired with a glass of tawny port.
Needless to say, more experimentation is in order. I’ll gladly sacrifice myself (and my waistline) to this endeavor and eventually post a recipe. In the meantime, if you’ve never had the pleasure of eating a canele or two or three… I highly recommend Caramel in Eugene. (I didn’t see them on her website, so you might call first.) I also read raves online about Ken’s in Portland.