Crème Caramel

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Ok, enough with this healthy stuff. Bring on dessert.

Very well! For a long time I’ve been curious about Crème Caramel but too wimpy to make it. It starts by making caramel, something I’ve done many times, but then you pour the caramel into ramekins, make a custard with eggs and milk and vanilla bean, pour it on top and cook everything in a water bath. The scary part comes later, after you refrigerate it, when your guests are there and it’s time to unmold… what if it doesn’t come out? What if the caramel didn’t melt and remained a hard block? What if your custard is too wet? Or, worse, overcooked? When it comes to Crème Caramel it’s easy to be afraid.

Thomas Keller’s recipe certainly scared me. There are many steps, as you’d expect from a Thomas Keller recipe, and ultimately I decided to find something a little easier online as my starter Crème Caramel recipe. Turns out the recipe that I liked the most, as reproduced on the Gratinee blog, was Julia Child’s. Authentic but not fussy. I got to work immediately.

First: you steep a vanilla bean in some milk. Easy enough.

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Then you start on your caramel with sugar and water in a pot.

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Bring it to a boil and cook cook cook…

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When it changes color…

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…and gets even darker than that but not burnt (it’s a delicate art knowing when to stop) you pour the caramel into ramekins.

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Phew: the hardest step, complete.

Then you make a custard by beating eggs and egg yolks with sugar.

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Gradually, you whisk in the warm milk mixture and then strain it to get rid of anything solid that might be in there.

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After that, you pour the custard on top of the caramel in the ramekins.

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This is the other tricky part: notice the ramekins are in a roasting pan. You then fill that roasting pan about halfway with boiling water so the ramekins are half submerged. This ensures even cooking (something I learned about on the set of my cookbook shoot when the food stylist, to save time, baked the clafoutis directly in the oven without a water bath…looked nice for the picture, but beneath the surface? A curdled mess.) Then you pop it all into a hot oven.

Hey, look how nice everything comes out 45 minutes later.

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At this point, the work is over. You let it come to room temperature, cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate until dinner.

Fast forward several hours and dinner is over. My friend Zach is still here and it’s time to serve the Crème Caramel. Unmolding happens at the table and everything’s at stake. My reputation. Our need to have dessert. Global warming.

Luckily, Zach took a video so you can see how the story ends….

This is good stuff, infused with pure vanilla flavor (I love vanilla beans) and it makes its own caramel sauce. Turns out: there’s not much to be afraid of. Just follow the instructions and away you go.

Recipe: Crème Caramel

Summary: By way of Julia Child and the Gratinee blog.

Ingredients

  • 1 vanilla bean (it’s worth it to buy a vanilla bean for this recipe; if you really don’t want to, use 1 teaspoon really good vanilla extract)
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • 2/3 cup sugar (for the caramel) PLUS 1/2 cup sugar (for the custard)
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 egg yolks

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Start by steeping the vanilla bean in the milk. Slice the pod in half vertically (a paring knife works well), scrape the seeds out with the side of the knife and add them, along with the pod, to the milk in a pot. Turn up the heat, whisk a little (helps break up the seeds) and when you see bubbles around the rim turn off the heat and allow the milk to steep while you complete the rest of the steps.
  3. Set four to six ramekins on the counter and begin to make your caramel. Add the sugar (that’s 2/3 cup) and water together in a pot and bring up the heat to medium/high. Don’t stir but rotate the pan around to help the sugar dissolve. As it cooks (and depending on how high you have the heat, this could take a while) the color will eventually start to change. Watch it carefully. When it turns a very dark amber, almost brown, pour it directly into the ramekins. (Be careful: that’s sticky, scalding hot stuff.) Swirl the ramekins around a little so it gets an even coating of caramel. Set the pan aside and you can clean it later by adding water and bringing it to a boil and whisking; the caramel will dissolve easily.
  4. Now make your custard. Beat the remaining 1/2 cup sugar into the eggs and egg yolks until light and foamy. Gradually add the warm milk mixture (remove the vanilla pod first), whisking all the while, until you have something that looks like a custard. Strain it into a separate bowl.
  5. Pour the strained custard into the ramekins on top of the caramel and then put the ramekins in a large roasting pan or baking dish. Fill the pan with boiling water so it comes halfway up the ramekins and place the whole pan, carefully, into the oven. (If you’re nervous, you can put the pan in the oven first and add the boiling water while it’s in the oven. Up to you. Depends on your balancing ability.)
  6. Bake for 5 minutes then turn the temperature down to 325 and bake another 40 minutes or until the center of each ramekin is no longer wobbly. (I just stuck my finger on top of the custard and felt it; when it was mostly firm, I knew it was done.) Remove the pan from the oven, take the ramekins out and allow them to come to room temperature. Then cover with plastic and refrigerate until ready to serve.
  7. To serve, run a knife around the edge of the ramekin, put a plate on top and flip the ramekin over. Pat it a few times to help the custard come down and then lift. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have a cute little ramekin-shaped custard topped with caramel and surrounded by caramel sauce. Job well done.

Preparation time: 45 minute(s)

Cooking time: 45 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 6

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