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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.
When I was a child I eagerly waited for the fair to come to town. You know the kind–a travelling carnival that sets up every summer in the parking lots of suburban strip malls across North America. I liked going on the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel, and a ride called the Yo-Yo, which reminded me of the airplane rides adults gave you when you were little. Most of all, though, I loved the treats that are so ubiquitous to carnivals everywhere. Fluffy mounds of cotton candy, swirly lollipops the size of your head, and especially, caramel apples. I waited all year in anticipation of my first bite of the sweet, buttery flavor of the sticky and chewy caramel followed by a burst of tart and juicy apple goodness.
Until last Christmas, I hadn’t had a caramel apple in probably thirty years. One of my students brought me one as a little going away present. A sort of spin on the proverbial apple for the teacher. As much as I loved the uniqueness of this gift, it sat in my fridge for days. I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. Eating it somehow seemed childish, like going to the corner store and bypassing the Lindt chocolate bars for the Fun Dip. But every time I opened the fridge door the caramel apple beckoned me. Before I knew it, I was chewing my way through the caramel bit by bit, into the sour Granny Smith apple underneath. I have to admit, the caramel apple was as good as I remembered.
As much as I love the combination, I’m not about to start buying myself caramel apples as a weekend treat. Instead, I came up with this simple tart that I can put together when the craving for caramel apples becomes too much.
You will need good baking apples for this one. Golden Delicious are a good choice. I used Gala’s the first time I made it and they were too juicy, creating a soggy mess. I use a mandoline to get really thin slices because puff pastry is more delicate than other tart crusts; I find thinly sliced apples a better combination texture-wise, but its not mandatory. The caramel will not cover the apples completely, but mixed with the juices of the apples while it bakes, it will create a nice sauce that’s not too sweet.
Caramel Apple Tart
1 10-inch sheet puff pastry
4 baking apples, peeled and cored, cut into thin slices
1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 stick butter (1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1) Roll out puff pastry on a lightly floured surface until its large enough to fit a 9-inch tart pan with some overhang. Fit into tart pan and cut off the overhang with a knife.
2) Place apples slices side by side around the pan, all facing the same direction, as pictured above.
3) Melt 1/2 cup sugar with the butter in a saucepan over medium heat until smooth. Add lemon juice, then salt.
4) Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until caramel is thick and deep brown in color.
5) Drizzle caramel over the apples. Finish by sprinkling the apples with 3 tablespoons of sugar.
6) Bake about 25 minutes, or until puff pastry and apples are golden brown. Cool and serve with ice cream or a dollop of whip cream.
It’s great served plain, too.