I was barely seventeen the first time I went to Paris. Barely out of high school. Barely breathing those first whiffs of freedom before heading down to San Diego for the dreaded dorm life on university.
It was a week of work and play - I was there with Mom for the Pret à Porter show (clothes of course), and we stayed in a little apartment just off the Rue de Bastille. We did normal Parisian things: ate vast quantities of croissants and baguette with strawberry jam and butter for breakfast, ordered chocolate mousse at the end of every dinner, and most importantly, stopped every afternoon for a café crême and a pastry. Our goal was to try something different every day, making our way through the vast array of tarte tatins, éclairs, and macarons. We also tried different pâtisseries every afternoon, not wanting to play favorites. Each one varied in quality, each often had it's own specialty, and the special ones had cannelés.
When we first ordered one of these babies, we had no idea what to expect. Nubbly and slightly burnt looking, it stood apart from the other flakey pastries. Compact, curved like a little tower, and slightly heavy, we were intrigued.
Biting into it we knew, we just knew, that this was something special. The carmelized shell was crispy. The dense eggy center was barely sweet, and also intriguingly chewy. A mysterious flavor mingled with the caramelized sugar and the dense inner custard, which I later found out to be the addition of dark rum.
We were hooked.
Traditionally made in copper molds and prized for their ability to last for days, I now know why that first cannelé was amazing, and every subsequent one was only okay.
At first I thought it was just the moment. Standing on that particular corner, from that particular bakery, eaten at that specific time: a series of cosmic moments turning into the ultimate cannelé experience. Because we really tried to recreate it. After that afternoon, we threw away our try-everything-in-the-Parisian-bakery idea, and we focused on the cannelé. But much to the detriment of the cannelé's reputation, it just never lived up.
And now I know why. It's all about the crust. Like with crispy bread crust, or flakey pastry, or toasted anything, that initial crispness is half the appeal. Without it, things flop. And all those semi-par cannelés had one thing in common: the carmelized shell was soggy. Because although prized for keeping well, it's the crust that suffers. Without that initial crispness, it was just a chewy blob. The trick was to find a pâtisserie that baked them that same day, and buy half a dozen to enjoy that afternoon.
That was back in 2003. Since then, I've been to Paris four times, each an excuse to try a new pâtisserie and a new version of cannelés. It's been one of those things: only in Paris.
Until last week, when I walked into my favorite bakery (Downtown Bakery, Healdsburg) and I saw a plate a gleaming cannelés alongside the lemon curd tarts and butterfly ganache cookies. I couldn't believe it. I actually asked the teenage working there: when did those get here?!, as if they had just arrived on a plane from France. He shrugged his shoulders, obviously a bit weirded out by my enthusiasm. He didn't mind taking my money though, as I prepared myself for my first cannelé experience outside Paris.
It was no disappointment. Crispy, chewy, greasy, just sweet enough...
Now, I'm cheating a little. It's not that I am not desperate to make these puppies, and bring a little bit of Paris into this San Francisco kitchen. But in between all these things that have been going on, the lack of general pantry ingredients has become a problem. Things like sugar and butter have disappeared from the cupboards, and while I wait for their reappearance, I live without my baked goods. A lame excuse, I know. But it's why I want to invite you over here, where not only can you read more about cannelés, but there's also a convenient recipe, if you choose to indulge. That is, if you don't happen to be in Paris or Healdsburg in the next little while. Because trust me, you want a cannelé. You want it bad.