It is fun to open up an unexpected Fed Ex package, but it is entirely delicious when the large box is temporary housing for un petit cadeau: a tasteful yellow rectangular box cocooned within 5 feet of scrunched paper. Without further pause, this pretty parcel is ripped open to reveal a surprising sight, the coppery burnished crumb of a caramelized canelé profile. For some reason, the size and shape of the container seemed to indicate to me, something weightier perhaps a fancy olive oil bottle within. I couldn’t be more wrong or more pleased. These smallish cakes (about 1-3/4” tall) are wonderful and might easily be overlooked in a pastry case because they are so unapologetically brown and look as though they have been left in the oven too long, slightly wizened and glassy. They look like some sort of elongated miniature bundt cake or even worse they remind me of strange scented waxy candles with scalloped edges found in the back of a Hallmark card store (though not orange). While crude and slightly off putting, these physical descriptions are still meant to assist in honing in on these treats in case you haven’t had the pleasure of being formally introduced.
I myself have eaten these cakes only a half dozen or so times and each event as an after-lunch dessert. It was probably back in 2002 when I first met the infamous Canelé de Bordeaux. They arrived- a pair, in a non-descript wax paper bag along with a salmon tartine (a French open faced sandwich) in the educated hands of my brother. Knowing how much I love to eat good food and limited by my waning energy and mobility, he began to come by weekly after foraging the streets of San Francisco for our special feast. In spite of how alarming that time was for me personally, it was greatly assuaged by the gentle care and witty banter of my dear sweet brother. He would appear with mysterious bags and containers in tow, opening each one with excited earnestness all the while studying my expression. The first time he produced that nub of a glazed cake, I stared blankly unable to rouse appropriate excitement. I had no idea what it was. He did not roll his eyes visibly, he didn’t need to. The incredulous tone in his voice said it all,“You don’t know what a canelé is?” Slightly embarrassed, I listened to a description of this prized custardy cake from Bordeaux that is slowly baked to a deep mahogany patina within fluted copper molds coated with beeswax. I nodded attentively while thinking, “When on earth had he become a foodie and isn’t that tartine just a sandwich?” Unable to blow my cover, I hastily bit into one of the burnt pair and discovered a taste-texture sensation. First, one meets the thinnest veneer of bitter crackled sugar adhered to a chewy crust about 1/8” thick. Upon taking that first bite one is next able to note the eggy interior and inhale a strong sweet perfume of vanilla and honey, it is a little pineapple-y as well. The insides are somewhat similar to a popover or a cream puff in that there is a cavity, but it is much moister and almost collapsed looking. In fact, the bottom interior portion of the cake is thickened custard holding on for its life, a taste somewhat reminiscent of the round full confectionary taste of dulce de leche. This makes sense in that milk, sugar, vanilla bean, egg, flour and rum steep and age at least a day or two and then are slowly baked up to 2 hours, further enriching and condensing their flavors. This is custard on the edge- reduced so long it finally produces a chewy crispy crust on the outside while managing to retain a fetchingly creamy interior. This edginess is then further explored and exaggerated with those hard to find, specially made copper molds with the crenulated crevices, a necessity for producing a multiplicity of crunchy corners and teeth jamming satisfaction. “Incroyable!”
Back in New Hampshire as four become two, I contemplate taking on this time consuming treat. While the ingredients and the actual making of the batter seem to require elementary cooking skills, like a bad fortune cookie- I see trouble ahead. The texture is a complex combination that hardly seems easily reproducible; no matter how fool hardy I tend to be. The few recipes that I have perused indicate that a muffin tin can be used in lieu of the real thing. For once, even I scoff after a short consideration. I decide to go the way of the canelé, “Live on the Edge” and buy instead of bake, after all Pascal Rigo of Bay Breads seems to know what he is doing. And besides, they ship here.