Monthly Archives: March 2010

Crème Brûlée

Allegedly, this dish has its origins at Trinity College, Cambridge, where to this day it is known as Trinity Cream. I fell in love with it when I lived in Paris.

There are probably more constructive ways of spending Springtime in Paris, but I was compelled to try every crème brûlée in my arrondissement. This resulted in significant weight gain, but a finely honed appreciation of what makes a good one. You’re going to have to forget all mention of flour or cornstarch to stabilise the egg yolks. Yes, that works. Yes, that’s good enough for custard and for pastéis de nata, but the nicest crème brûlée is the one where the custard has a very light texture, to offset the crunchy sugar, the added starch just makes it too solid; too safe.

I’m afraid the temperatures and durations are a bit vague. You will need to experiment to discover the optimum for your oven and your ramekins. Do not even think about serving this to guests on your first attempt.

Start by eyeing up your ramekins, and working out how much custard you’ll need. Some people like very wide shallow servings, to maximise the crunchy toffee layer, other people prefer theirs deep and creamy. For each six egg yolks, you’ll end up with about 600mL of mixture.

Assuming six average sized portions, you’ll need:

  • the yolks from 6 large eggs
  • 250 mL milk
  • 250 mL double cream
  • 50g caster sugar
  • things to infuse, typically a vanilla pod (split), plus…
  • 100g of Demerara sugar for the topping

Mix the yolks with half the sugar.

Put the cream and milk, together with the remaining sugar, and whatever you’re infusing, bring to the boil, immediately turn off the heat and leave for 10 minutes.

Get the oven going at 140ºC – mine’s a fan forced so you may need to go higher for gas – or lower if you’re using very shallow ramekins.

Beat the yolks and sugar until thoroughly combined. If you use an electric whisk you’ll end up with a lot of foam on the surface, which isn’t useful.

After fishing out whatever you’re infusing, pour in the cooled milk/cream/sugar mix into the egg/sugar mix. If it’s still hot, do it gradually so you don’t cook the eggs!

Mix well, and scoop/pop/eradicate any bubbles and/or froth. This is important: if there’s a layer of bubbles on top when you bake, it will go hard and leathery.

Pour the mixture into ramekins in a baking tray, and fill the tray with hot water coming to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (I’m paranoid, and put the ramekins on top of a folded up teatowel, so there’s water underneath as well. This may be unnecessary.)

Bake for around an hour, but start watching them like a hawk after 45 minutes. They’ll probably colour slightly on top. If they start to puff up, they’re done, and in need of rescuing. However, before that, you can tell if they’re done by giving the baking dish a poke, and they’ll still wobble, but only slightly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool. I leave the ramekins in the water bath, mainly out of cowardice, as extracting hot ramekins from scalding water isn’t my idea of fun. Once cooled, cover with cling film and refrigerate.

Once properly cold, you can then sprinkle the custard with Demerara sugar, and have your wicked way with the blowtorch. Caster sugar works just as well, although it will produce a thinner crust. To my lasting shame, I have a salamander given to me by a friend, which has seen no successful action.

(Photos? Sorry. Greed got in the way.)

Variations

My local French restaurant, sadly fallen upon hard times and no longer a going concern, used to serve a dégustation des crèmes brûlées, which was a platter of them, each having been made with a custard infused with different things: lime zest, orange zest and cardamoms, lemon zest and cinnamon, etc.

I’m sure you can get creative, but don’t forget to share with the group.


Lazy Food

An amusing article at the Beeb this week, with much wringing of hands about the increasing tonnage of convenience foods in supermarkets.

Pfft. I like lazy food: it gives me a chance to cook something when pressed for time, as opposed to throwing in the towel and ordering a pizza. It allows me to claim weeknights as my own. It is often over packaged – which I don’t like – these days the heretic’s garbage day consists of a small bag of organic horror and a huge bloody sack of packaging – the subject of another rant.

Favourites

Here are some useful things.

Sofritto
Pre prepped sofritto is a life saver. It’s not that much trouble to peel and dice an onion, ditto a carrot or two and half a bunch of celery. Add it all up, and you don’t have much of your weeknight left. And half a bunch of celery, damnit. They don’t sell it by the half bunch, so the other half gets popped into a sealed tupperware in the fridge with the best intentions, and its deliquescent remains are tipped ceremoniously into the rubbish a week later.
Grated Mozzarella
Not the delicate buffalo cheese that you slice and serve as antipasto, but the vigorous chewy cow’s cheese, that is perfect on pizza and in parmigiana di melanzane. Get it pre grated, in a resealable plastic bag, and store it in the freezer.
Marigold Bouillon
Popularised by Nigel Slater, this stuff makes quite good vegetable stock and allows all manner of wonderful things to be attempted when time is of the essence. Don’t leave home without it.
Chopped Pickled Ginger
Peeled, chopped, packed in a jar of white vinegar, and none the worse for wear.

WTF

Now, there are some things that don’t make sense.

Chopped Onions
If anyone finds this too hard, please let me know and I will write a short, abundantly illustrated article on how easy this is.
Stoned Olives
The second you take the stone out, they start losing flavour. So buy them with the stone in, even if you are simply going to chop them up finely and throw them into pasta sauce to tantalise the oleaphobes in your life.
Peeled Potatoes
I’m sure this is only an urban myth.
Adulterated Garlic
If it comes in any other form than a whole head, it ain’t garlic. The chop and pickle in vinegar approach – that serves ginger and chilli so well – doesn’t work, and as for turning it into powder, oh dear. (Note: the garlic you see in whole heads is dried. Keep an eye out in the shops right now for fresh Spring Garlic, with its thick stem and wonderful flavour.)
Chopped Meat
Other than mince, I find pre chopped meat vaguely disturbing. This could just be me.

Pommes Boulangères

I am always amazed at how something this simple can taste this good.

Legend has it that pommes boulangères originated with French housewives cooking this dish in the local bakers’ ovens. Why their own ovens weren’t up to the task history does not relate.

As usual there are a surprising number of variations, but let’s stick with the basics.

  • potatoes, either waxy or floury – the waxy ones will hold their shape, but the floury ones will make the liquid thick and gooey
  • and for each 500g spuds
    • one large onion
    • two bay leaves
  • enough stock to cover (meat or vegetable based)

Decide whether or not the potatoes need peeling. The Charlottes I’m using today have such delicate skins that it doesn’t seem worth the bother. Slice the potatoes thinly; about the thickness of a pound coin. If you have a lot of potatoes then a mandoline is a wonderful thing, although you may not think it so wonderful when you’re trying to clean it later.

Peel and slice the onions to about the same thickness as the potato.

Place a layer of sliced potato on the bottom of an oven proof dish, then all the sliced onion in a layer, then the bay leaves, salt, and pepper. You can also peel and sliver a clove of garlic, and add that as well. (I normally would, except that today’s main course involves two heads already.) Some people add a few knobs of butter at this stage as well. Then finish off with another layer of potatoes on top. You might want to save your most photogenic slices for this purpose, and it looks nice if they overlap.

Pour enough stock into the dish to just come up to the top layer of the potatoes. If you don’t quite have enough stock, just top up with water. This is definitely a dish which will benefit from some nice homemade stock, but don’t be embarrassed to reach for the bouillon powder.

Finally, pop into an oven at 180ºC. After an hour, some of the slices on top with be crisp and crunchy, and there’ll be a hint of mash developing at the bottom. Regardless of that, make sure the potatoes are tender to the point of a sharp knife.

Caveat

I’ve just said three layers, which means a large and shallow dish. If you use more layers, you’ll need to increase the cooking time.

You’ll notice in the photos that I’ve used about six layers: this wasn’t a problem as the potatoes were cohabiting an oven at 150ºC for three hours with some slow lamb. When I took the lamb out to rest, I cranked the oven up to 200ºC for fifteen minutes to give the topmost layer a better tan.

Unexpected Vegetable Pasta

Ugh.

The mince from the supermarket was off. Looked perfectly respectable on the outside, even smelt OK. Almost. And then, as I broke it up into pieces before hurling into the pan, the entire inside was a greyish brown mush: to say it stank would be like saying Mount Everest is tall. (At least I hadn’t just chucked the mince in whole, only then to discover it was rotten.)

So the ragù very quickly became vegetable sauce instead.

Today’s learning experience however is to with the sofritto. Once it’s done, deglaze the pan with madeira. Yum.