On a recent trip to the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France, I checked into my hotel hankering for a good baguette. I asked the front-desk attendant to recommend a local boulangerie. Her response: “Have you ever tried cannelés?” 

Such is the status of this iconic pastry here: Even attempts to locate bread are redirected toward cannelés, traditional bell-shaped pastries—which have crusty shells and moist, custard-like interiors—baked in fluted (cannelé in French) copper molds.

The most popular story of their origin attributes the invention of cannelés to a group of 17th-century nuns at the convent of L’Annonciade in Bordeaux. Archeologists have since debunked the tale, but experts believe that cannelés have been around in some form since the 1700s.

Today they are a fixture of daily life in Bordeaux and its surrounding region, Gironde, where residents devour more than 15 million cannelés each year. Some pair palm-size versions with coffee in the morning; others enjoy larger cannelés in the afternoon with tea or at night with a glass of Rivesaltes dessert wine. “Their popularity is a result of their elegant simplicity,” says Jean-Marie Amat, a celebrated chef in Lormont across the Garonne River from Bordeaux.

In 1985, the pastry’s simplicity became a cause célèbre. A group of local patisserie owners grew concerned that the cannelé was losing its authenticity because chefs were adding ingredients to the traditional recipe. The bakers banded together and created the Confrérie du Canelé de Bordeaux, a guild devoted to preserving the cake in its original, pure form. Their first act was to officially drop one of the n’s in the pastry’s name to signify the difference between a genuine canelé and a bastardized one. The Confrérie’s motto: “The only good wine is from our hillsides; the only good cake is the canelés of Bordeaux.” Since then, members of the guild have referred to their pastries as canelés.

By 1997, the tension between the traditional and the radical had escalated. The Côte d’Azur newspaper Nice-Matin reported that Jean-Louis Vosgien, a chef in Saint-Tropez, was mixing orange confit and orange flowers into his cannelés. The standard-bearers in the Gironde cried foul, and the resulting flap was documented in the French press. Since then, innovative chefs have flavored cannelés with prunes, chocolate, and even foie gras.

Today, 600 patisseries in the Gironde make cannelés (and canelés). The best traditional versions in or near the city of Bordeaux are at Antoine (19–21 Cours Portal, 33/(0) 5-56-81- 43-19) and Lemoine (56 rue Baudin, Le Bouscat, 33/(0) 5-56- 43-11-33). In Lège-Cap-Ferret, a resort area on the coast, try the cannelés at Frédélian (33 Boulevard de la Plage, 33/(0) 5-56-60-60-59). The recipe below is from the Michelin-starred Restaurant Jean-Marie Amat (Château du Prince Noir, Lormont, 33/(0) 5-56-06-12-52). A

Cannelés
(Serves 4 to 6)
Adapted from a recipe by Jean-Marie Amat

INGREDIENTS

4 1⁄4 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out (pod discarded)
8 tbsp butter
4 whole eggs, plus 4 yolks
2 1⁄2 cups granulated sugar
1⁄2 cup flour
7 tbsp rum
1⁄2 tsp salt

MAKE IT

1. In a saucepan, combine three cups milk, the vanilla seeds, and seven tablespoons of the butter. Cook the mixture over medium heat, and turn off the burner when the mixture reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Carefully monitor the temperature with a thermometer.
2. In a separate bowl, mix the rest of the milk, the eggs, yolks, sugar, flour, rum, and salt.
3. Cream the two mixtures together until smooth. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
4. Using the remaining butter, generously grease the molds.* Fill each mold two-thirds of the way up. Depending on the size of your molds, this will make about a dozen.
5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and cook the cannelés for one hour.
6. Remove the cannelés from the molds by turning the pans upside down onto a cooling rack. Eat them the same day for the best flavor.

* Molds for cannelés are available at most kitchen-supply stores.

Photo by Aya Brackett. This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.