The origin of this little cake is rather mysterious… there are stories of baking nuns in the 16th Century, for example, and accounts of the rise of the house of Baillardran in the early 20th century… but no one version completely holds water. People can’t even agree on the spelling: one “N” or two? Nobody knows for sure.
If you look at local specialities, they are usually linked to whatever was in abundance or what needed preserving. Swiss specialities like raclette, fondue and Croûte Valaisanne are logical culinary “inventions”: up the Alps in the winter, there were lots of potatoes (they keep for months), old bread (often baked into a circle, so one could hang it on the wall from a peg to avoid it being eaten by rodents overnight), white wine (used to soften up the old bread and adding flavour) and Kirsch (cherry alcohol, to forget the cold), which would then be eaten with cheese, molten or otherwise (and which is just a way to store milk in solid form before pasteurization made storing liquid milk possible).
In the same way, the ingredients used to bake the canelés are very much influenced by Bordeaux. There is rhum and vanilla, both of which would have come through the city’s port in abundance thanks to its vibrant trade with far-off places, such as the islands of the Carribean. Another main ingredient is egg, or more specifically, egg yolk. This is linked to the wine trade, as egg white is used in the collage stage of vinification, the “fining”, which is a fancy way of filtering the wine in the vat, leaving leftover yolks to use in the kitchen.
The original canelé moulds are made of copper and are either individual or in multiples of 3 or 4, like muffin tins. I prefer to use silicone ones, though, as I have no patience for cakes sticking in their tin. I used the miniature size moulds (bite-sized). The “official” ones are about the size of an egg.
1/2 l of milk
1 vanilla pod (slit and scraped)
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
a pinch of salt
100g plain flour
a generous dash of rhum
What to do:
- Boil the milk, butter, and vanilla pod.
- Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and eggs with a whisk to avoid lumps.
- Add the hot milk while beating with the whisk to make a smooth, liquid dough (like for pancakes).
- Let cool.
- Add rhum and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 270ºC.
- Fill the canelé moulds about 3/4.
- Bake for 5 minutes, then turn down the heat to 180ºC and bake for 50-70 minutes depending on the size of the canelés and just how caramelized you like them (I do the 5 minutes plus 60 minutes).
- If using copper tins, turn out quite quickly to avoid sticking. If using silicone, you can let cool in the moulds – they come out with no effort whatsoever.
The baked canelés obviously don’t have any alcohol in them – it’s all burn away. But if you want an adult version of these, you can dip the hot cakes in rhum or Grand Marnier…
Delicious! So… does it really matter who invented the canelé? The story I like best is that of a baker’s apprentice who was freshly in love and sneaked out of the bakery to see his sweetheart while the baker was having his sièste. Because love is blind and a very bad time-keeper, the young apprentice returned after his little rendez-vous only to realize that he had completely forgotten the cakes in the oven. He turned them out of their tins and worried about their brown colour, but when he bit into one to taste it, he found that the caramelized crust contrasted well with the soft center and that the aromas of rhum and vanilla lingered on the tongue like one of the sweet kisses of his lady friend. He decided to give one to his boss who liked the taste and promptly decided to tell everyone that he had made them. The canelé was born.