Whatever its form—a bagel, a sourdough bowl, a toasted English muffin—I find bread impossible to resist. (My one attempt at a low-carb diet led to anger issues.) Naturally I jumped at the chance to make a pilgrimage to France, a magical land where baguette ingredients have been defined by federal law since 1993. Upon touching down in Paris my first meal was a giant brioche from Eric Kayser Artisan Boulanger. Then a baguette from 134RdT, and a buckwheat galette from Breizh Café, and that transcendent almond croissant (Eric Kayser again). Within three whirlwind days I was thoroughly convinced that Paris knows everything worth knowing about baking. Then I went to Bordeaux and was ruined for life.
Though Bordeaux doesn’t have a single Eric Kayser, it does have the canelé, the single greatest pastry ever invented. Now, in your home country you might have seen or eaten a sad facsimile of a canelé and, like me, thought *pfft* I’d rather have a pain au chocolat. No, my friend. Imagine a tiny fluted cake that fits in the palm of your hand. Inhale deeply for a hit of caramelized sugar and dark rum. Crunch through the dark exterior to a pale custardy center speckled with real vanilla beans. Chew while choirs of angels sing.
The authentic recipe is simple enough: flour, sugar, egg yolks, butter, whole milk, rum, vanilla. It’s the execution that is brutal. The batter alone can take three days to make. Since silicon and aluminum molds can’t achieve the perfect texture, accredited patissiers use tin-lined copper molds or nothing. Said copper molds are lined with a thin layer of beeswax to keep the canelés from sticking. The oven starts at a scorching temperature to caramelize the shell. The patissier must keep a watchful eye on the pastries, pulling them out of the oven if the batter threatens to overflow the mold. Canelés are at their peak fresh out of the oven and cooled just so that the crust crackles when you bite into it. I hear there are a number of tricks to revive the crispness of a day-old canelé, though I can’t imagine how anyone has the self-control to leave survivors.
My prized box of Baillardran canelés made it through U.S. customs and lasted exactly one day. (My family and friends don’t understand just how generous I was to share.) To deal with my bereavement, I might invest in my own 3-ounce copper molds—a mere USD$20 apiece!—and source beeswax at the farmers’ market. And I will most certainly investigate the “canele de Bordeaux” on the breakfast menu of Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco. Since chef Amaryll Schwertener bakes only a dozen canelés a day, I’ll be sure to set my alarm. And ask for mine bien cuit (“well-cooked”—that is, extra crispy).