I love custard with a passion. Custard in any of its glorious forms. Sometimes I think if I could be guaranteed custard in all its guises, it may well be my desert island food: hand me a pot of the most mass-produced custard and a spoon, and then give us our privacy, please. Ambrosia is ambrosial.
For me, it can do no wrong: thick dollops of cold custard on hot crumbles, streams of steaming crème anglaise, speckled black by vanilla, elegant slivers of custard tart, flecked with nutmeg, and gently wibbling. Give me shivering soufflés with dusted lids, ice cream in any flavour, crème brulees, unctuous and impossibly creamy, with a crisp, mahogany sugar shell. I’m not sure I will ever grow out of my early developed belief that there is no pudding in the world more sophisticated than a crème brulee.
But canelés go one step further: it is essentially a custard cooked at a high temperature for a very long time until it forms its own crust, helped by a mixture of beeswax and butter. They are small enough and firm enough you can pick them up easily with your hands. They are custard finger food. This is a crème brulee reimagined as finger food. There is the faintest hint of honey and a bitterness from the wax and deep, dark caramelised crust that gives way to a yielding, tender, pale, rum-laced custard. If eggs punctuate my life, canelés are the exclamation marks.
There are a whole handful of theories as to why and how canelés were born. The oldest and my favourite is that local winemakers who used egg whites to clarify their wine donated the egg yolks to a convent whose nuns then baked these cakes. I don’t really care whether or not it’s true, I want to hug that origin story close.
I was hesitant to write about these little cakes because in order to make them properly – and by ‘properly’, I don’t mean ‘authentically’, because that is a whole can of worms that deserves its own post – to make them so that they are as delicious as they can be requires moulds and beeswax and lengthy refrigeration. I generally shy away from writing about recipes which require specialist equipment or ingredients.
But the problem I have with these is two-fold: first that if you have the mould, they are incredibly simple to make, secondly that they are a delight. I couldn’t resist the canele when it sat in front of me on a small plate, and I can’t resist sharing it with you.
In theory, caneles should be made in individual copper moulds. Unfortunately these are both hard to source and prohibitively expensive outside of small French junk shops and patisserie-purpose boutiques. Silicone moulds are eschewed by those keen to produce ‘proper’ caneles; I imagine that it may well make a difference, and I speak without authority because I don’t own copper ones, but the ones I have made to this recipe in silicone moulds remain glorious: a deep, dark burnished brown, with a slightly crisp, thick shell, and soft set custard within.
I would thoroughly recommend buying the mould. They’re much more affordable than their copper brethren, they fold up so can be shoved into small places in small kitchens, they go through the dishwasher, and they give you the proper dimensions which in turn gives the caneles the best possible texture and contrast for the crust and custard. I use these. It is difficult to achieve the same without any canele-specific moulds, as more standard moulds tend to be shallower. You can approximate caneles, however: use the deepest muffin pan you have, and cook for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 rather than the timings given below.
In terms of beeswax, I am both smug and lucky to have parents-in-common-law who keep bees, and therefore keep me in wax, often in the form of beeswax decorations from Christmases past. It is almost worth attempting to mask my bee phobia for it. If you are not as smug as me (likely, I am extremely smug), you can find beeswax at craft shops, farmers’ markets, but brilliantly cheaply with fair delivery at www.honeyshop.co.uk.
- Sometimes, especially with silicone moulds, the caneles can rise up out of their moulds a little. If, after 30 minutes, they do so quite prominently (don’t worry about anything under a centimetre), gently wiggle them back into place, remembering that both mould and canele will be oven-hot, so use an appropriate implement.
- A tip: if you’re trying to remove beeswax from pans or crockery, fill it with water and heat it until the wax rises to the top. Place kitchen roll in a sieve or funnel and pour the water through it. The wax will cling to the kitchen roll and can be easily binned. Sometimes if I’ve bene over enthusiastic with the wax, I have to do this twice.
- The key to caneles is to leave the batter to rest overnight, to reduce aeration as far as possible, so don’t miss that step. I know it looks like nothing’s happening, and it’s terribly boring, but trust me on this.
It goes like this:
[This is based on Edd Kimber’s excellent recipe from Patisserie Made Simple, but adapted slightly for silicone moulds]
For the canelés
450ml whole milk
3 tablespoons dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100g plain flour
Pinch of sea salt
5 large egg yolks
175g caster sugar
For the beeswax coating
- Heat the milk in a pan just until it reaches the boil, then take off the heat and stir in the vanilla and rum.
- If you have a food processor, add the butter, flour, and salt and pulse until it looks like small breadcrumbs. If you don’t have a food processor, rub these ingredients together by hand, until it looks as descibed. Add the sugar egg yolks and pulse or stir with a fork until they are properly mixed in. Turn the processor onto a low speed, or gently stir, and begin adding the hot milk in a slow stream. Only mix until the batter is just combined. Strain into a clean bowl through a sieve, cover with clingfilm (the clingfilm should touch the batter), and refrigerate for 24-48 hours.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 190 degrees. Place the moulds on a baking tray and put them in the oven to warm through for five minutes. Melt the beeswax and butter in a small pan and paint it carefully onto the inside of the moulds; I find this easiest with a silicone brush. Turn the moulds upside down over a wire rack placed over baking paper to allow any excess to drip out. If your kitchen is as cold as mine, the beeswax will set almost instantly and you can plough on; if not, put the moulds in the freezer for fifteen minutes.
- Remove the moulds from the freezer, and pour the batter into the waxed canele moulds, filling them about 3/4 full. I find a funnel very helpful here. If you have more batter than you do moulds, you can return it to the fridge for later use. Bake for 1 hour 45; the silicone moulds need slightly longer than the copper, so if you’ve blagged some copper ones, take them out nearer the 1 hour 15 mark. Their bottoms should be a rich brown, and whilst they won’t be firm at this point, you should be able to press them gently with a finger.
- Allow the caneles to cool in their moulds for five minutes, then turn the moulds over onto a wire rack (the silicone will still be very hot, so do be careful). The caneles will come out, but may need a little bit of silcone wiggling; they will firm up as they cool.
- Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
These should be eaten within a day or two of baking, or the crust will soften too much, but you’ll be lucky if they last that long. With the best of intentions to cart them across London to my colleagues the following day, the majority of a not-insignificant batch were eaten one by one as the day passed. They are addictive and beautiful and next time I will double the quantities.