How many recipes can you say have been a constant companion for almost your entire adult life?
For me it’s just a handful, and they are almost all desserts.
Back in my 20’s, I found order and reason behind the comforting construct of dessert recipes — they demystified a world of edible chemistry and I quickly learned that improvisation (while doable with cooking) was disastrous in the world of baking. One false move or assumption, one tiny alteration or substitution inalterably, irrevocably changed the end result and you wouldn’t know it necessarily until you sat down to try it.
So I followed dessert recipes with great care; somewhere the Baking Gods understood the precise balance between flours and fats and the bewildering why’s and how’s of baking soda (and? or?) baking powder usage, so I paid attention. I went to cooking school during the day and I tinkered at night. Cookies and madeleines and biscuits and tarts and cakes and custards – ah, what wonderful homework.
And one day after finishing my first month at school my then-boyfriend took me out for a celebratory dinner at a restaurant of my choice and I picked Stars. During its heyday, it was a thrilling place to go — boisterous, grandly beautiful like a celebrated French brasserie and they had the most marvelous food. Jeremiah Tower was the chef then, and like Alice Waters, he spotlighted all these fantastic, rarely seen before ingredients in the most dynamic, inventive ways (some say he was the father of California cuisine).
Emily Luccheti was the equally talented pastry chef there and her desserts (also sold next door at Stars Cafe which became our favorite go-to in the city) were amazing. Lemon bars without equals. Russian wedding cookies with a crumb so tender it could make you weep with gratitude. Everything out of her pastry kitchen was spectacular and to this day her book, Stars Desserts (circa 1991) is one of the most used in my cookbook collection, and many a page is sticky from wet fingers and inadvertent spillage.
Her Caramel Pots de Creme are my family’s absolute favorite dessert. It is our birthday cake, our go-to for celebrations small and big, and the one recipe we inevitably pull out for houseguests. I have been making these pot de cremes for almost a quarter-century and now well over a hundred times.
The only thing I have changed over the years is I add 1 tablespoon of vanilla to chilled custard and I always add a little large flaked salt (like Maldon’s ) on top of the cooked, chilled custards; I find that tiniest bit of saline crunch makes this silken, sultry dessert even more so — and the caramel flavor even more impressive. Really, though – any pinch of good salt will do. Try not to forget it.
Miraculously, every batch has worked out well and covered in plastic wrap, these will keep for a few days in the fridge (although they are so good I can’t see that happening).
Enjoy — and prepare for legions of besotted fans.
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream
- Six 6-ounce ovenproof ramekins
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
- Place the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and lightly whisk them. Set the bowl aside.
- Dissolve the sugar in the water over low heat in a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to eventually hold the milk and the cream. Increase to high heat and cook the sugar until it is a golden amber color. While the sugar is cooking, pour the milk and the cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepot. Scald the mixture over medium high heat.
- As soon as the caramel becomes a golden amber color, carefully and slowly pour the hot cream and milk into it. Use a long-handled spoon or whisk to mix them together, as the caramel will bubble as you begin to combine them.
- Whisk the caramel cream into the egg yolks. Strain and refrigerate the custard base until cool. Skim any surface air bubbles off the custard base.
- Pour the custard base into the ramekins. Place the ramekins in an ovenproof pan and put it in the oven. Fill the pan one-third to one-half full of hot water. (it is easier to fill the pan with water when it is already in the oven.) Cover the pan with aluminum foil.
- Bake the pots de creme for about 50 minutes. When gently shaken, they should be set around the edges yet have an area in the middle, about the size of a quarter, that will not be completely firm.
- Refrigerate the pots de creme for several hours to overnight.