Canelés can be easy to miss in a crowded pastry case. Small, dark, and mysterious, they’re about the size of a cookie and can be easily mistaken for a mini Bundt cake. But find an edge to nibble, and the first bite is a revelation, as the crunchy exterior sinks into a soft center, exposing a custard at heart. “Canelés are a complex story,” explains Amaryll Schwertner of Boulettes Larder. “The molds are exact and the technique unforgiving. They’re anything but flashy, but take a closer look — they’re so burnished and beautiful.”
Canelés are classic pastries worth seeking out. The original recipe comes from Bordeaux and dates back several centuries. According to Paula Wolfert, well-traveled food writer and authority on the Mediterranean, canelés may have been created by a convent of nuns in the 1700s, but they were also made near the docks, where the molds were nestled directly into embers. In the 1980s, a baking brotherhood put the recipe behind lock and key — only in France, right? This we know: traditionally, canelés are baked in individual copper molds brushed with beeswax, which is quite literally a hot mess.
In San Francisco today, canelés can be hard to find, or at least hard to find done well. Understandably, there aren’t many restaurants or bakeries that are willing to invest in specific equipment and get sticky. Before the pandemic, canelés did appear on fine dining menus, often buried at the end of the meal with the mignardises or sweets, and there were enchanting versions at Bar Crenn, Quince, and ONE65. Not everyone is a fan. A year ago, the SF Chronicle restaurant critic cited them as an example of what bores her about fine dining, calling them “obligatory” and a “tired trope.”
But this pastry-obsessed writer respectfully disagrees. Canelés de Bordeaux are one of the great revelations of French pastry, and they don’t have to be elite or exclusive. Boxed up fresh from a good bakery, they’re equally delightful with a morning cup of cafe au lait or an evening glass of Bordeaux. And even now, during the pandemic, there are a few notable pastry chefs in San Francisco who are injecting fresh flavors into the classic and putting out beautifully burnished versions of this humble little custard around town.
Amaryll Schwertner of Boulettes Larder has been mastering this dessert for almost two decades. Boulettes Larder is a longstanding fixture in the Ferry Building, serving market-driven brunches and snacks, including some of the finest canelés in the city. Schwertner first encountered the pastry at Ladurée, that great pastry house in Paris, and stocked up on molds at famous cookware store Dehillerin. She flavors the custard with good vanilla and dark rum, and always bakes in copper molds brushed with beeswax, never taking silicon shortcuts. The results are crusty, custardy, and classic, and the perfect snack to snag after the farmers’ market.
Lisa Vega of Dandelion Chocolate couldn’t resist adding chocolate. Of course, Dandelion is the resident chocolate maker in the Mission, so everything on the menu is chocolate, from the hot cocoas to the torched s’mores, but it’s a bold move to try to flavor a tradition. Undeterred, Vega says canelés are her “absolute favorite pastry ever,” and she waited a couple of years before finally adding them to the menu to make sure they could successfully add single-origin Ecuadorian chocolate, imparting its deep fudge flavor, without compromising that crunchy-creamy texture. The canelés are not currently available through the website, but they can be picked up in person by stepping up to the window at the Valencia location.
If you’ve scanned the emerald pastry case at Stonemill Matcha, down to the littlest canelé, you’ve found the work of Mikiko Yui. She originally trained at Boulettes Larder, before launching her own canelés pop-up, and eventually supplying the matcha cafe. Her creations are definitely untraditional: not only flavored with the vibrant green tea but sometimes flipped upside down and garnished with different flavors of jam or dots of cream. They’re not always on the menu, so catch these canelés while you can. They’ve been popping up as a weekend special once a month, so keep an eye out.
Le Dix-Sept Patisserie
Never least, canelés lovers rejoiced when Le Dix-Sept finally opened last week in its first official storefront in the Mission. Michelle Hernandez trained in pastry in Paris, and bounced back and forth for years, before finally moving home to the Bay, and opening her own patisserie. She’s known for beautiful botanical flavors and designs across cakes, tarts, and cookies, but don’t miss the canelés, which have their own cult following. She traveled to the Mauviel factory in Normandy to see how the molds are made at the source, bakes the canelés until deeply, darkly caramelized, never blond, and insists on serving them same day, never second day, to capture that traditional juxtaposition of textures.