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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.
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.