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Food & dining

From Bordeaux: simple yet tricky canelés

Susan Tinagero (near right) follows French pastry chef Yolene Adande’s advice as she whisks ingredients for caneles. Above, right out of their molds, are the class’s finished products.

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The class’s finished products.

Move over, macarons: The newest entry in the tricky-to-make-but-oh-so-delectable French pastry sweepstakes is the canelé (pronounced can-a-LAY).

You may not have heard of them, but dedicated bakers are full of admonishments and strong opinions about the little confections. Upscale kitchenware stores sell pricey specialized canelé molds. And a canelé shop, Canelé by Céline, opened recently on New York’s Upper East Side, offering the pastries in sweet and savory flavors ranging from chorizo to chocolate.

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At first glance, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. A canelé — either full-size (about 2 inches in height), or mini (a bit bigger than a decorative thimble) — is a modest-enough looking treat, like a small bit of fluted column. Properly made, the chewy crust is a very deep caramelized brown, skating as close as possible to burnt without crossing the line, and the inside is tender, nearly custardy. Canelés are made from a thin, eggy batter traditionally flavored with vanilla and rum. The genius lies in the simplicity: a freshly baked canelé, a specialty of the Bordeaux region of France, is a small miracle of taste and textural contrasts.

You might think something that seems so simple and contains such basic ingredients — eggs, milk, flour, sugar, butter, vanilla, rum — would be easy to make. But you’d be sorely mistaken. If you hope to make canelés, your best bet is to put yourself in the hands of a French pastry chef who can impart authentic canelé wisdom.

That was what brought several canelé aspirants to Back Bay’s French Cultural Center on a recent Thursday, when Yolene Adande, who grew up outside Paris and trained as a pastry chef in Chicago, led a hands-on canelé workshop in the center’s kitchen.

Adande, a pixieish presence in jeans and black Converse sneakers, spent a few minutes on the pastries’ Bordeaux history. One origin story has them invented by nuns who were using up egg yolks (whites were used to clarify local wines). Another version suggests that they were created from spilled flour picked up on the docks.

What’s not in dispute is that canelés came from the region and have gone in and out of fashion over the years. They were seemingly put on the modern map in the 1980s when a group of Bordeaux bakers formed a brotherhood meant to protect the pastry’s authenticity. Food writer Paula Wolfert has written extensively about the little confections on www.paulawolfert.com.

To a novice, the trickiest thing about canelés might appear to be timing. When the class arrived, a batch was already in the oven of the big, time-blackened Garland range, since canelés can take as long as an hour to reach the proper stage of caramelization and then require a cool-down period of 20 minutes before they can be released from their molds. The batter, though quick to prepare, must rest in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before baking. Note that, on top of all that, canelés are best consumed the day they are made, and it becomes clear that scheduling is a crucial component of the intricate canelé dance.

Susan Tinagero (near right) follows French pastry chef Yolene Adande’s advice as she whisks ingredients for caneles.

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Susan Tinagero (left) follows French pastry chef Yolene Adande’s advice as she whisks ingredients for caneles.

But not the most crucial part. That, said Adande, is the oven itself. “That’s the only thing you can mess up,” she said. “If you have good ingredients and whisk like your life depends on it, you’ll be fine. But I’m sorry to say, your oven is a liar; it’s cooler than it says it is. And the only thing that will make your canelé good is a hot-enough oven.” For canelés, she sets hers at 480 degrees (an odd number most Americans don’t use), lowering it to 400 after 20 minutes of baking.

As students mixed batches of batter, they discussed their own canelé obsessions. Kellyann Tsai had brought home molds from a semester abroad in France years earlier and was determined to put them to use. Pauline Lim, having previously mastered croissants, said she enjoys a baking challenge. “I love to throw myself into things.”

Adande demonstrated the easiest way to fill the molds (with a squirt bottle) and discussed silicone molds versus classic copper versions, which require a coating of beeswax. She favors the silicone, which make up in convenience what they lack in tradition.

At long last, the canelés were ready to unmold, and they popped out of the silicone forms with impressive ease. Perhaps not quite brown enough to qualify as classically perfect, they were nonetheless delicious, and the fact that it was now nearly dinnertime didn’t deter the students from sampling enthusiastically. After all, as Adande had remarked earlier, “It’s always a good time for canelés.”

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.
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