Adieu, Cronuts: Canele Shop Puts French Pastry at Center Stage

By Lindsay Armstrong on December 23, 2013 8:43am 

UPPER EAST SIDE — First it was the cupcake. Then, the macaron. Finally, the Cronut.

Now, an Upper East Side bakery may be on to New York’s next dessert craze.

Canele by Celine — a small shop specializing in caneles, or bite-sized French cakes with caramelized exteriors and custard-like interiors — opened last week at 400 E. 82nd St. And while the canele is not that well known in New York, owner Celine Legros is betting it will be soon.

“It’s just very simple ingredients that make a really refined and elegant product,” Legros said.

She is not the only one who sees the potential. The James Beard Foundation named the canele a “food trend to watch out for,” and Wallpaper magazine declared caneles the “next cult cake” in its December issue. 

Caneles originated in the Bordeaux region of France in the Middle Ages, when nuns baked the cakes using egg yolks left over from the wine-making process. The cakes are traditionally flavored with rum and vanilla.

Legros, who was born and raised in Paris, has experimented with different flavors including chocolate, orange and pistachio. Last year she added savory flavors such as Parmesan and truffle to the menu.

“I wanted to give some modernity to the canele,” Legros said. “I love that it’s an old pastry, but I wanted to add my own touch as well.”

She has also reinterpreted the recipe to make it more friendly to Big Apple palates. She miniaturized the cake and uses less sugar and 2 percent rather than whole milk. The result is a lighter, bite-sized cake that’s perfect for New Yorkers’ on-the-go lifestyle.

Legros has been baking and selling caneles since 2009, after a chance encounter with renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten inspired her to make a career change. Vongerichten’s executive chef taught a cooking class that Legros helped to organize, and she baked him some caneles as a thank you.

“Jean-Georges tried them and he came back and said ‘These are very good. Where are you selling them?’” she recalled. “When I said that I wasn’t selling them, he told me, ‘You should be.’” 

Legros then left her job as a corporate lawyer to bake full time. She built up a following by selling her treats online and at food festivals and cafes, but the bakery is her first brick-and-mortar venture.

It has not been an easy road to get there. In 2012, the Parks Department chose Legros to set up a food cart in SoHo’s Petrosino Square. However, her plans fell through due to pushback from a community group that didn’t want vendors in the park.

Although it was a difficult time for the business, Legros is happy with how things turned out.

“When you’re a very small business, something like this, it really almost jeopardized everything for me. But you have to look forward,” she said. “Maybe it worked out better for me because now I have a store instead of just a cart.”

Legros is also happy to be on the Upper East Side, where she lives and where many of her retail clients are located. Although she planned a soft opening without much fanfare, Legros said she already counts repeat customers.

“I wanted to see how the neighborhood would discover it, and the reaction has been wonderful,” she said. “People come in one day and then they are back the next to order more.” 

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