Exploring vegan, vegetarian and sustainable cooking

Crème caramel

Petits pots de crème

Source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One

Initially, I hadn’t been planning a dessert. But with my mind on French cooking and staring at the heavy cream in the fridge, I started thinking about French custard and pastry cream. I’ve traditionally been a crème brulée kind of person, but after seeing this recipe for crème caramel, figured I’d try the more elegant dessert.

Crème brulée, in many ways, is an easier and safer dessert. If your custard doesn’t set completely, it’s ok. If your sugar topping doesn’t caramelize all the way (or burns a little), it’s still ok. On the other hand, crème caramel is served unmolded so it must be set properly. It also requires making a proper caramel. But with a proper recipe, following the recipe accurately, and a bit of patience, crème caramel is a quick and simple dessert that will work every time.

It’s also worth noting that crème caramel is the more common name for this dessert, and we typically see it served as individual portions, made in a ramekin. This is handy for restaurants and makes cooking it easier (it sets more evenly), but it was traditionally made in a larger mold and served family-style. A more proper name for this dessert is crème renversée au caramel, emphasizing that this dessert is unmolded. Individual portions are also called petits pots de crème, although this name is more commonly used for custards served in small bowls or cups.

To make this recipe, you start with making a caramel. Not a caramel sauce that uses cream to make it soft, but a hard caramel that uses only sugar (and some water to start the process). There are two tricks with making caramel:

  1. Once the sugar is completely dissolved and comes to a boil, cover the pot so that the water vapour condenses on the lid and drips along the sides of the pot, preventing the formation of sugar crystals.
  2. Taking the caramel far enough, without burning it. A weak, undercooked caramel has no depth of flavour. But a burnt caramel will ruin a dish. You’re looking for a deep golden, amber colour. Not a wood-brown colour.

I made a calculated substitute with the ingredients. The Julia Child recipe calls for (dairy) milk, which I don’t buy (I use oak milk). I was worried that oak milk wouldn’t work properly in this custard and risk not setting (maybe it would be fine… it’s worth a future experiment). But since I had cream, I decided to use a 50/50 blend of heavy cream and oat milk (actually, an oat-based egg nog). I figured blend would be thick enough and provide the dairy components to ensure the custard set, without resorting to buying milk, or a crazy rich custard that pure cream would produce.

The results were great! The custard set perfectly and unmolded nicely by running a sharp knife around the edge of the ramekin. And the egg nog spices from the oat nog provided a nice depth of flavour.

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