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My idea of the perfect dessert involves custard in any shape or form. That a few simple, everyday ingredients can be applied to heat to produce such a rich and silky concoction is surely one of the great feats of civilization, right up there with the invention of stiletto heels and landing a man on the moon. Add a bit of caramel into the mix and I swoon like a nineteenth century maiden in an Edith Wharton novel.
Crème caramel, also known as flan in Spanish-speaking countries and in North America, is a custard dessert with a layer of soft caramel on top. It is similar to crème brûlée, which is custard with a hard caramel top. However, crème caramel is usually served unmolded, and because of this, it calls for more eggs and egg yolks than custards served directly from ramekins or other serving dishes.
Although crème caramel originated in Spain, it spread in popularity across Western Europe and much of the world. Packaged versions of this dessert are ubiquitous in Japan and are called “purin”, which means custard pudding. It is also common in the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as South American countries like Argentina and Uruguay, where it is usually eaten with dulce de leche.
The recipe I submit to you today is Julia Child’s crème renversée au caramel–unmolded caramel custard. It requires the additional caramel recipe on page 584 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You line your ramekins or molds with the caramel, fill it with custard, and then bake in a water bath to ensure slow and even cooking. It can seem a little complicated but crème caramel is actually quite simple to make and it never fails to impress.
Crème Renversée au Caramel
by Julia Child, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
serves 4-6 people
for the caramel:
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
Add sugar and water to a heavy stainless steel saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. When it starts to brown, swirl the saucepan around but do not stir. This will ensure that the sugar turns color evenly and will help wash any crystals off the side. When it is thick and a light, nutty brown, remove from heat and pour directly into molds; swirl each mold to coat evenly with the caramel.
for the custard:
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean
1) Bring the milk and vanilla bean (if you are using) to just below a simmer in a saucepan. Let the vanilla steep in the milk while you prepare the rest of the custard ingredients.
2) Gradually beat the sugar into the eggs and egg yolks in a bowl until well mixed, light, and foamy. Continue beating while pouring in the hot milk in a thin stream of droplets. If you are using vanilla extract rather than a vanilla bean, add it now. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve into the caramel-lined molds.
3) To bake the molds, set them in a pan and pour enough boiling water around them to come halfway up the sides. Place in the bottom third of an oven preheated to 350F. After five minutes, turn down the heat to 325F. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the center is firm but slightly wobbly. Cooking it too long will result in a tough rather than tender custard.
4) If you would like to serve the custards warm, set the molds in cold water for about ten minutes before unmolding; otherwise chill in the refrigerator. To unmold, run a knife between the custard and edges of the mold. Place a serving dish upside down over the mold and quickly reverse the two, and remove the mold from the custard.
There is much to love about summer. The endless sunshine, weekends spent camping or lazing on the beach. Picnics in the park or evening strolls around the seawall. If pressed, it would be hard for me to say what my favorite part of summer is, but I suspect I would say the fruit. Cherries, blueberries, nectarines and plums … I love them all. Mostly, though, I adore strawberries.
Yesterday, I spied local strawberries at my neighborhood market. I had been buying California strawberries for a couple of months now, but when I saw the familiar green baskets with the small ruby red berries, my heart gave a couple of extra beats. The California strawberries are okay. Sometimes they’re even good. But nothing can compare to our local, in-season strawberries. They’re small, relentlessly juicy, and bursting with that sweet strawberry taste that needs no sugar or other adornment.
I took them promptly home and made strawberry shortcakes. I was also reminded of the days when I was a child and we’d go strawberry picking to one of the farms on the outskirts of the city. Whether you live in Vancouver or one of the suburbs, you can drive in any direction and be in the countryside sooner rather than later. The whole family would pile into the car, each holding a big white bucket, and we would spend the whole afternoon rummaging through row after row of strawberry patches, until out backs ached and our hands were stained so red that we looked as though we’d had a serious accident.
Truth be told, I didn’t think much of the actual act of strawberry picking; my disdain for the dirt and the bugs were a foreshadowing of my future city girl ways. But I did love the aftermath of these jaunts out to the farm. I would gorge on those berries to my heart’s content. We weren’t the kind of family to have dessert after every dinner, but suddenly my mother was making cobblers and shortcakes and a strawberry jam that was so runny I used to spoon it by the ladleful over bowls of vanilla bean ice cream as a sort of impromptu sauce. The jam was a bright, fresh red, not too sweet, and to this day it’s still the best strawberry jam I have ever tasted.
Tasting those local strawberries yesterday, I made a resolution to get myself out to a berry farms one of these weekends. Maybe even learn how to make my mother’s jam. I’ve been trying to eat seasonally and locally as much as possible for awhile now. What better way to connect to my food and the earth than doing some strawberry picking of my own?
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”
Makes 10-12 biscuits
The biscuits in this recipe are made with yogurt, the best way to get a tender and flaky crumb. I use French Vanilla to add a bit of sweetness, but regular yogurt will do. You may also use buttermilk as a substitute. If you have neither, use milk instead and add 1 extra teaspoon of baking powder and omit the soda. For an even softer biscuit, try cake flour instead of all-purpose flour.
for the biscuits
2 cups all-purpose or cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 tablespoons cold butter
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons yogurt or buttermilk
1) Preheat the oven to 450F. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl or food processor. Cut the butter into small pieces and combine with the dry mixture until it resembles a coarse meal. The butter should be thoroughly blended with the flour.
2) Add the yogurt or buttermilk and combine until the mixture forms a ball. Do not over blend. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead no more than 10 times. Add a bit of flour if it is too sticky to handle.
3) Press the dough into a 3/4 inch thick rectangle and cut into 2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or a glass. Put the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. Gently reshape the rest of the dough and cut again.
4) Bake for 7-9 minutes, until the biscuits are golden brown. Do not over bake.
For the filling:
5 cups sliced strawberries
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1) Toss the strawberries with 2 tablespoons sugar and allow to sit while you whip the cream.
2) Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Slowly add 1 tablespoon sugar and the vanilla. Whip for 1 more minute.
To serve, cut the biscuits in half and fill them with the strawberries and fruit. The shortcakes are best when the biscuits are fresh.
I was in desperate need of a chocolate fix when I stumbled upon this recipe for Molten Lava Cakes by Paula Deen. For some reason anything with the word ‘lava’ in it makes me think of the seventies. Because of lava lamp, maybe? Anyhow, because of this association, this dessert first struck me as very retro, liked baked Alaska or those jello molds. But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. It seemed incredibly easy and who can resist cutting their fork into a piece of cake to have their plate flood with a thick, oozing stream of warm chocolate heaven? Not me!
With a bit of poking on the Internet, I discovered that this is basically a French dessert, otherwise known as Moelleux au Chocolat. We call them lava cakes because the batter is not completely cooked, causing that liquid center to run out, like lava from a volcano.
The cakes are baked in custard cups, but ramekins or even a muffin tin can be used. The trick is to serve them fresh from the oven. Cool them slightly and then run a knife around the edges to loosen; invert each cake onto serving plates. The cooking time may be as little as 10 minutes but up to 14 minutes. The edges should be firm but the center wobbly.
I like to dust mine with a little icing sugar and serve them with strawberries or raspberries, if they’re in season. They’re also wonderful with creme anglaise or a raspberry coulis, if you want to bother.
Molten Lava Cakes
Adpated from Paula Deen courtesy of The Food Network
6 (1 ounce) squares bittersweet chocolate
2 (1 ounce) squares semisweet chocolate
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 stick) butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons orange liqueur
1) Preheat oven to 425F. Grease 6 (6 ounce) custard cups. Melt the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler.
2) Add the flour and sugar to the chocolate mixture. Stir in the eggs and yolks until smooth. Stir in the vanilla and liqueur.
3) Divide the batter evenly among the custard cups; it should come up about three-quarters of the way.
4) Place in the oven and bake for 10-14 minutes, until edges are set and have shrunk slightly away from the custard cups.
5) Invert each cake onto a dessert place and serve immediately.
When I offered to bring dessert to our family’s Easter dinner, Tiramisu immediately sprang to mind. No Easter is complete without chocolate, and tiramisu has some chocolate. Otherwise, I’m not sure what it is that makes it seem like the perfect dessert for this spring holiday. Maybe because it’s just so elegant and sophisticated. Tiramisu makes you look good. People ooh and aah over its rich and creamy delights, exclaiming “you made this?”. Yet few desserts are as easy to make–actually, assemble–as Tiramisu. You don’t have to bake anything. You start with a package of dry ladyfingers and end up with cake and layers of gooey espresso infused cheese. What could be better than that?
Recipe adapted from Giada De Laurentis
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
1 pound mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups espresso, cooled
2 teaspoons dark rum
24 packaged ladyfingers
powdered cocoa or chocolate shavings, for garnish
1) Beat egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick and creamy. Add cheese and beat until smooth. Add one tablespoon of the coffee and mix thoroughly.
2) In a shallow dish, mix the rest of the coffee and rum. Dip half the ladyfingers, one by one, into the espresso for five seconds and place in the bottom of a 13×9 inch baking dish. Break the ladyfingers up if necessary, in order to fit the bottom.
3) Spread half of the cheese mixture over the ladyfingers. Arrange another layer of ladyfingers over top. Spread with the remaining cheese mixture.
4) Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with the cocoa or chocolate.
When I started this blog, oh not so long ago, I had only a fuzzy idea of what I wanted it to be. I was taking a course on Food & Travel Writing at the same university where I completed my master’s. Our teacher, Don Genova, suggested that blogging was a good way to compile a portfolio to show editors. I had heard of blogs but had never looked at one. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon The Amateur Gourmet while doing a search on Ina Garten did it even occur to me that people blogged about food. I looked at the links on Adam’s blog and discovered some other really great blogs. I also discovered that actually thousands of people blog about food. I found this both encouraging and disheartening. Did I dare add my voice to the cacophony? Did I have anything to say that anyone would want to read? Not just that, but I also realized that photography is a component of a successful blog–we like the eye candy. Photography was not something I had much interest in. I’ve always been drawn to the linguisitic over the visual. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even have a digital camera today had my brother not bought me one last year, for my birthday.
I have been writing for a long time but I am a fiction writer. Writing fiction is a completely different animal. It will always be my first love…yet, there have been clues…that writing about food is also something I should be doing. Members of my writer’s group complained that there were too many descriptions of food in my prose. Menus got recited all over the place, characters were irrelevantly concerned about what they were eating. Food was always present in my stories but it was never connected to anything.
When the downturn in the economy left me with more time on my hands, I decided to do something about this food writing thing. I signed up for Don’s class and started putting paper to pen. I didn’t know if I could make a go of it, but I knew I had to try.
I started this blog to put into practice what I learned in the class, albeit in a more casual and personal way. I didn’t think I could do it. I know very little about computers, even less about photography, but somehow I’m finding my way. I’ve learned a lot in a short time, and that really excites me. Even the photography has been a fun challenge and I find my interest in it blooming. I love learning something new. Learning and growing as a person are more important to me than most things in life. I never want to be stagnant.
Some of the blogs out there are so fantastic that it’s intimidating. I know I can’t compete with them, but I do hope to find a small community to hear my voice. I think that’s what all bloggers want, but at the end of the day I think blogging is about sharing. It’s why we’re all here.
So in that spirit I leave you with a recipe for one of my favourite desserts, French Chocolate Mousse, adapted from the pages of America’s cooking Bible, The Joy of Cooking. Before I started this blog I rarely ate dessert. Making sweet at home made no sense; I had no one to make them for and eating them myself seemed was certain to lead to weight gain. I’ve discovered baking to be the most fun, and when I reach for a recipe for these days it’s often for something sweet.
French Chocolate Mousse
2 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
3 ounces grated good-quality chocolate
4 egg yolks, beated
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1) Scald 2 cups milk and 1/4 cup sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Add a little bit of these ingredients to the egg yolks with a whisk to temper. Stir the egg mixture into the rest of the milk.
2) Stir until the custard thickens slightly. Do not overcook. Strain into another saucepan. Cool by placing the saucepan in cold water and then into the fridge.
3) In a separate bowl whip the whipping cream until stiff. Add the vanilla.
4) Fold the cold custard into the whipping cream until well blended. Fill custard cups or champane glasses with the mousse. Chil thoroughly before serving.
I’m no stranger to disasters in the kitchen. Tart crusts shrink, custards burn, I forget to add eggs to my crepe batter or another essential ingredient to whatever it is that I’m cooking. Today I cut my finger. Yesterday I burned my arm taking a gratin dish out of the oven. But the more I cook, the more I learn. I understand these accidents are all part of the process, and even the greatest cooks have their share of failures; we know this from dining in restaurants. Perfectionist that I am, I rarely get anything to come out exactly how I hope. I want the visual perfection of a Martha Stewart photo spread coupled with the perfect flavours of a dish a la Nigella Lawson. When things turn out I feel like a million bucks–especially when I didn’t expect them to.
Take tonight. I was making pots-de-creme and realized at some point that the recipe wasn’t going to work. The fact that I was able to recognize this beforehand was in itself a triumph; it meant that I’ve come along way since my days of scorched rice and rock-like cupcakes. I tinkered with the ingredients, cooked the custard in a double-boiler on top of the stove–and saved the day. Or at least saved my pots-de-creme. Saving something from being thrown away feels even better than getting it right the first time.
These simple little custards are the perfect antidote to a dreary day, or when you are after the comfort that only a silky, chocolaty dessert can offer you.
3/4 cup half & half
3/4 cup milk
1 cup semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon instant coffee
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1) Heat milk and half & half in the top of a double boiler until scalded. Temper eggs in a small bowl by whisking in a little bit of the milk. Set aside.
2) Add chocolate and whisk until melted. Add cocoa, coffee, and sugar until well combined. Whisk in pinch of salt.
3) Add the eggs and vanilla. Stir the mixture constantly over medium low heat until thickened, about ten minutes. Strain into custard cups or ramekins.
4) Cool for 10 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap. Put the wrap directly onto the custard so a skin doesn’t form. Set in the refrigerator for 2 hours before serving. Garnish with whip cream or a dusting of icing sugar.
It snowed yesterday. This may not be unusual for the rest of Canada in March, but here in Vancouver it certainly is. It actually snowed a lot this winter. It’s been a long one and I’m tired of wearing boots and carrying my umbrella wherever I go. I want the sun to shine again. I want the flowers to bloom. I want to wear cotton dresses and open-toed shoes on my feet. Yet it feels like spring will never come.
This past weekend I pulled out all of my spring clothes from my storage closet. I washed and ironed everything and hung it my closet, ready to go. I was willing spring to come. When you don’t have enough room in your closet for both your warm and cold weather clothes, you realize how much stuff you really have. And I realized how much of it don’t even wear. I have items that I really love and wear them over and over until I get tired of them, and then I move onto the next thing.
It’s a lot like this with food; I go through food phases the way I go through clothing phases. I find a new recipe or rediscover an old one and suddenly I’m eating it almost every day. Sometimes its Caesar salad. Sometimes its lasagna or cinnamon apple crepes, or just plain French Vanilla ice cream. Lately it’s been rice pudding.
This is an odd one for me. I was never much of a rice fan until I went to Italy and discovered risotto and arborio rice. Arborio rice has a high starch content and when you cook the plump grains in a flavoured liquid you get a creamy sauce that’s rich and delicious without a lot of fat. It makes the perfect rice for rice pudding. I’ve been eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
My first few attempts at making this treat ranged from less-than-satisfactory to just plain awful. I was looking for a texture that was rich yet light. Creamy without a lot of added fat–like the whip cream called for in some recipes. With a bit of web-surfing and mucking around in the kitchen I found a basic rice pudding recipe with all of the above. The egg and the bit of butter give it that much sought after richness.
Although you can cook the rice in milk just as you would cook a risotto, I find that method unnecessarily laborious. You cut the stirring time considerably by simmering the rice first and then cooking it in milk until it becomes thick and creamy. This original inspiration for this method and recipe is adapted from Allrecipes.
Although I love sweets, I don’t like anything that’s too sweet. This recipe calls for only 1/4 cup of sugar, which I think is enough. If you prefer sweeter desserts, you can boost this to 1/3 of a cup.
Rich & Creamy Rice Pudding
3/4 cup arborio rice
2 cups milk, divided
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon good vanilla extract
2 teaspoons butter
Boil 1 1/4 cups water in a medium saucepan. Add rice and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 20 minutes.
Add 1 1/2 cups milk, sugar, and salt. Cook over medium heat until most of the milk is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Stir often, so the the bottom won’t burn.
Combine egg with the other 1/2 cup of milk and slowly incorporate into the rice. Cook for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the butter and vanilla.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Now it’s official. You may consider me a bona fide foodie. Sure, I’ve been interested in cooking for as long as I can remember. I own my fair share of cookbooks. I spend way too much time watching Food Network and have subscriptions to Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines. But I was always more of a curious bystander in the world of food. I rarely cooked anything from those magazines and cookbooks. I preferred to go to restaurants than cook at home, even though those restaurants somehow always ended up being the same old, same old. Real foodies, I figured, didn’t eat cereal for dinner or go into withdrawal without a weekly fix of Cool Ranch Doritos.
All of this changed a couple of months ago when the downturn in the economy left me with a lot more time on my hands–much of which I’ve been spending in the kitchen. I’ve learned to bake bread, make a souffle and other authentic French dishes, and have perfected my favourite restaurant dessert–creme brulee. Last week I even became the proud owner of a pastry torch.
This is serious business, I know. Who do you know that owns a pastry torch? I don’t know anybody. I thought about making this purchase for two years. Why buy a pastry torch when you can stick the creme brulee under the broiler for a few minutes? Besides, I reasoned, if I actually had a pastry torch I’d be making creme brulee all the time; my waistline would not appreciate it. But no matter how many times I tried, broiling the tops just wasn’t the same. I didn’t get the delightful crunch of caramelized sugar that seems to contrast so perfectly with the silky custard underneath.
Finally, I buckled. I took the torch home with trepidation. I had images of gassing myself or blowing up my apartment trying to fill it with butane. After a struggle with the strange English on the instruction sheet, I managed, and decided to try out my new torch immediately.
I have had company over for dessert several times since then and I can tell you nothing impresses like a homemade creme brulee. It’s so easy to make, and with the flourish of an authentic caramelized sugar topping, I promise you your friends will think you’re a genius.
Vanilla Creme Brulee
Makes 4 servings
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 cups whipping cream (heavy cream)
1 tablespoon good quality vanilla extract
4 teaspoons sugar, for caramelizing tops
Preheat oven to 300F.
Beat egg, egg yolks, 3 tablespoons sugar and the vanilla in a bowl until thick and creamy.
Scald the cream in a saucepan, stirring occasionally. Do not let it boil.
Remove the cream from heat and wisk a very small amount into the egg mixture. Add the rest in a slow, steady stream until well combined. Do not work too quickly or the eggs will scramble.
Scoop off and discard any foam that has risen to the top. Pour the mixture into 3-inch ramekins and place in a pan or ovenproof baking dish. Fill the pan or dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This will ensure slow and even baking
Bake until the brulees jiggle slightly in the middle, about thirty to forty minutes, depending on your oven. Remove the pan from the oven and let the brulees cool off in the water bath for 15 minutes.
Cover with plastic wrap and allow to further set in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
To caramelize the tops before serving, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar evenly over each creme brulee. Heat each with a propane torch until the sugar bubbles and browns. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.
If you don’t have a propane torch put the ramekins under a broiler for a few minutes until the tops brown.