February 17, 2014
(baked custard cake)
A controlled burn sounds like something relating do the management of forests rather than cooking. Usually it does. If we think about it, there may be no flames, but the surface of food goes through a controlled burn in many different preparations. The process of searing is a means of controlled burning the food surface. The process of heating sugar to the point that it’s between caramelization and burning is also controlled burning.
There’s one “traditional” little cake in French cooking that benefits from, actually requires, a controlled burn: the cannelé. The little baked custards, in order to be really good, require cooking the sugar at the surface until it is almost burnt black. Bake it too much and the surface becomes bitter. Bake it too little and the surface isn’t crunchy. The perfect cannelé has a soft, airy, and custardy interior with a crunchy, crispy, and deep brown, but not burnt, surface. The surface requires a controlled burn.
The recipe duplicated here is adapted from the one I found on the fantastic Chocolate and Zucchini website. I’ve known Clotilde for many years, and I know her to be quite honest and comprehensive with her recipes. I also know that, like me, she likes simplicity. After I made her version of the cannelés, which worked perfectly the first time, I started to read other versions on the Internet and watch a number of YouTube videos. I found more than one recipe that specified that the milk be heated to 84 °C (183 °F) before mixing with the other ingredients. Not 85 or 83 degrees. Why does the milk temperature need to be so precise? Many other recipes seem to have one or more parts that I can only describe as the equivalent of telling the cook to “stand on one foot while stirring in a figure‑eight motion at a rate of 2.63 stirs per minute while humming l’Internationale off‑key.” Maybe it worked for the recipe author, but I doubt it would work for me.
This recipe is actually quite forgiving. It’s essentially a starch‑fortified, sweetened egg custard that is baked until the sugar and starch at the surface caramelize close to burning. Just like making candy, it is necessary for the water content of the sugar to reduce sufficiently for this to happen. At 160 °C (320 °F), sugar begins to melt. At about 170 °C (340 °F), the caramelization begins, and the water content of the sugar is less than one percent. The color continues to develop until it becomes dark brown at between 190 and 193 °C (374 and 380 °F). For the baker, this means that the oven has to be sufficiently hot and the cannelés have to be exposed to the oven heat sufficiently long enough to reach the browning temperature at the surface.
The smaller the difference between the oven temperature and the current temperature of the surface, the slower the temperature rise becomes. Some browning may occur early on in the baking, but to reach a good caramelization point, both heat and time are required. Too much heat and it may be difficult to control the browning. Too much time and the interior of the cannelés may dry out. Each baker must balance their individual oven, mold material and exposure to the oven, and time. I was lucky since I essentially was able to duplicate Clotilde’s results on my first try. I was especially lucky since her mold produces much larger cannelés than my mold. If all else was equal, mine should have baked faster. That was not the case. It doesn’t matter. Your oven is different from mine, and your cannelés will bake differently.
The recipe, as written below, produces about 20 mini cannelés. I used a 30‑cavity, silicone mold and supported the mold on a rimmed baking sheet. My oven, like most, works primarily by radiation, which is “line of sight”. So the cannelés from the 12 cavities in the center of the mold, which are slightly more shielded from the oven walls, didn’t brown as much as those from the 18 cavities around the perimeter of the mold.
The higher initial baking temperature partially overcomes the loss of heat that occurs when opening the oven door to insert the raw cannelés and partially overcomes the insulative effect of the silicone‑rubber material of the mold.
170 ml (534 fl oz)
whole milk
10 g (2 t)
unsalted butter
1 t
vanilla extract
35 g (14 c)
all‑purpose flour
14 t
fine salt
60 g (434 T)
granulated sugar
1 extra‑large
egg, beaten
30 ml (2 T)
dark rum
1. Combine the milk, butter, and vanilla extract in a saucepan, and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. The butter should be completely melted and incorporated into the milk.
2. In the meantime, combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a large, deep bowl. Beat the egg into the flour with a wooden spatula. Slowly beat in the warm milk mixture, similar to making a crêpe batter. When the mixture is liquid enough, switch to a whisk. Finish by whisking in the rum.
3. Refrigerate the batter for at least 12 hours.
4. On the day of baking, remove the batter from the refrigerator, and whisk it again to redistribute the suspended ingredients.
5. Preheat the oven to 250 °C (480 °F). Arrange a silicone cannelé mold on a rimmed baking sheet.
6. Using a small pitcher or dispensing funnel, fill the mold cavities until the level of the batter is roughly 12 cm (316 in) from the top.
7. Place the filled mold with its baking‑sheet support into the preheated oven. After 20 minutes, without opening the oven door, reduce the oven temperature to 200 °C (395 °F). Bake at this lower temperature until the visible batter is quite brown but not burnt, about 40 minutes.
8. Remove the mold and baking sheet from the oven. Set the combination on a heat‑proof surface for about 10 minutes. During the resting time, the cannelés will contract slightly and pull away from the sides of the mold. Unmold the cannelés, and let completely cool on a cooling rack.
Note: The batter may be prepared ahead and refrigerated for a few days before baking.
Note: The cannelés will start to soften, depending on the weather, within a few hours of baking. I freeze them right away, and they seem to still be fairly crisp upon thawing. They can also be returned to a hot oven for a brief period to crisp the sugar coating.

© 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.