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All About Baking - Challenging Canelé

Updated: May 10, 2023

Standing in front of an oven is definitely my happy place, though anyone who’s had a close up of me in the kitchen might beg to differ. Watching me bake is like witnessing a chaotic symphony, particularly if I’m working on a challenging recipe. It’s some sighing, a little cursing, a tear or three, and a lot of muttering along the lines of, I don’t know, I just don’t know about this one. I’m not someone who finds meaning doing the same thing over and over again. However, I am one to happily tackle anything deemed difficult. I push myself to create a better end product each time I test a new recipe because my love of baking goes hand in hand with my love of a challenge. First, it was all types of meringue - particularly challenging because of its sensitive structure. Then it was sugar work - how to make caramel super smooth or get the perfect crackle. Most recently it was Canelé, or Canelé de Bordeaux, a french pastry originating in the Bordeaux region of southwest France. I won’t go into their storied history, but you can read about it at the History of Canelé. What matters is that they are notoriously difficult for any bakers, much less home bakers, to make consistently.

What is a Canelé

Few American bakeries, with all of their professional equipment and resources, offer Canelé on their menu. They require special, read expensive, copper molds. The batter needs a minimum of 24 hours rest. You’ve got to have beeswax. They require not only exacting ingredient measurements, but exacting temperature standards. Milk must be hot, but not too hot when mixing into the dry ingredients. Beeswax must be hot, but not too hot, and definitely not too cold for coating the molds. Molds must be full enough to catch the edge so they’ll rise during baking, but not so full that they bubble over the top and create a bulging foot. Baking them requires a temperature adjustment and a will of titanium to blind bake them so they don’t fall. And, as a baker, getting the color correct and even with no blonde tops is a feat worthy of a champagne toast. Of course I love them!. These temperamental cakes are just about my favorite thing to bake. And biting into a perfect one is nothing short of magical. The crunchy, intensely caramelized exterior gives way to a smooth, custardy center that reveals a unique pattern of webbing that is a delight in and of itself.

Canelé Truths

I can’t tell you how many times I made Canelé and failed; I lost count. Canelé that turned out bad. Real bad. The moments of sheer joy when I succeeded, and deflated by a failed batch the next time. The depression, the self doubt, and the nagging voice telling me to give up was real. But I kept going. Eventually, I internalized the nuances and minutiae of nailing them with the ingredients and equipment that I have. I was able to get them right, consistently enough, that I could take satisfaction in a problem solved. A challenge overcome. When people ask me what I love about baking, it’s not just butter and sugar (though I do love them), it’s also about all the life lessons I’ve learned from being in the kitchen. Overcoming challenges in the kitchen taught me to confront challenges in life. To be flexible and adaptable. To pay attention to the details. To be resourceful. To persevere. Because the reward of accomplishment, of nailing something challenging, is sweeter than anything I could bake.

If you’re up for a challenge, here’s David Leibovitz’s Canelé Recipe. This is where I started, in my home kitchen, with my equipment. You may need to make adaptations for your equipment, and your kitchen. (FWIW: Even my many failures were delicious) Let me know if you decide to take up the challenge!

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