Sunday, January 16, 2011

Crème Brulée with Vanilla Bean and Baileys

"Before & After" Original photograph courtesy of Adrien Cherrier

All too often, vegetarian recipe collections forget about dessert. Is it because vegetarians are supposed to be too sanctimonious to enjoy it, preferring instead to have a tisane made of birch bark and St.-John's-wort? Perhaps a nice grass smoothie? Whenever I have flown to Europe and ordered the oh-so-appealing sounding "lacto-ovo vegetarian meal" (which by definition includes both dairy and eggs, but which to me sounds distinctly like something related to breastfeeding or I.V.F.), I inevitably have to eat rice pudding, or worse, a 'fruit plate' composed of fruit-shaped objects entirely unrelated to actual fruit. I always look with great sadness on the chocolate cakes or mille-feuilles presented to my fellow passengers and wonder why I'm not allowed to have one.

The reason seems to be that sneaky and pervasive enemy, gelatin. Though I appreciate the airlines being strict enough in their definitions of what constitutes vegetarian food to exclude gelatin, I would sincerely appreciate a dessert that didn't.... well, suck. Being confined in a flying a tube with hundreds of other people for 8 hours in a space so cramped and uncomfortable that I begin to long for the comparative freedom of a straight-jacket is one thing. Being offered a depressing yogurt when everyone else gets cake is QUITE another.

With this in mind, I would like to offer a recipe for crème brulée, adapted from one by Curtis Stone (briefly known as the "Take-Home Chef" on TLC, and more lastingly known as a gifted chef with an unusually easy-going personality), which has proved to be extremely popular. This is a very rich crème brulée, smooth and velvety. Many commercial versions of this dessert are gelatinous, with several recipes adding cornstarch or actual gelatin - this is completely unnecessary. We do not want a wobbly Jell-o; we want a luscious and decadent custard. You should want to paint it all over your lover's body, not bounce it across the counter.

And so, without further ado...

Recipe (Serves 4)

Special Equipment Needed:
Crème brulée dishes
Culinary torch

1 1/4 cups heavy cream (35%)
1/3 cup whole milk
1/3 cup Baileys
1/2 cup white sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
7 extra large egg yolks (save the 7 egg whites for meringues or a healthy egg white omelet)
Turbinado sugar (sometimes called Sugar in the Raw or demerara sugar, it comes in large crystals which have a very deep flavour)

- Preheat the oven to 200F. It is possible to cook this dessert at a higher temperature for a shorter time, but that requires some experimentation and is not recommended for first-timers.

- Combine cream, milk, Baileys, and sugar in a medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan. Scrape the seeds out of the split vanilla bean (a spoon works well), and add to saucepan along with the whole bean.

- Heat this mixture over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves. Make sure it doesn't boil over or burn - cream is easily burnt and it is impossible to salvage afterwards. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes.

- Whisk the yolks in a large bowl to a creamy straw-yellow consistency and colour. When the cream mixture has cooled sufficiently, whisk it into the egg yolks gradually. If you don't wait for the mixture to cool, it will scramble the egg yolks which is, once again, irreversible.

- Strain this custard through a fine sieve - this will remove the vanilla bean and any solids - into a measuring cup for easy pouring.

- Now, you are ready to set up the ovenware. Place four 5-ounce crème brulée dishes (wide, shallow and preferably ceramic, like the ones in the picture above) in a large baking dish. Pour boiled water into the larger dish, about halfway up the crème brulée dish sides. This is called a bain-marie, and it helps the custard cook evenly without developing a crust or simply becoming scrambled from high temperatures (this can happen if an element comes back on in the oven during the cooking time). The water acts as a buffer, and this technique can be used for many other dishes too (on the stove-top, it is the only way to ensure that melting chocolate won't seize, and that sauces won't separate - much easier than frantically whisking over low direct heat).

- When the bain-marie is ready, pour the custard into each smaller dish, distributing it evenly.  Place the entire thing in the oven, and bake for about 2 hours.  They are ready when the custard is mostly set (when gently shaken, the centres might still move slightly, but they will firm up as they cool).

- When the cooking time is over, remove from the bain marie and cool.  Place in fridge until completely cold.

- When you are ready to serve, sprinkle the turbinado sugar generously over the top of each custard.  Usually 1 Tbsp. per dish should do - this sugar is very thick, so don't overdo it; it should cover the whole top, but not so thickly that when 'burnt' with the culinary torch it won't melt properly.  You should still be able to see the custard through the sugar.  Using the culinary torch (being very careful to follow the manufacturer's instructions perfectly - we don't want any explosions or burns), wave the flame back and forth over the sugar until it bubbles and caramelizes completely.  Be patient, this takes time and care.  If you cannot procure a culinary torch, it is possible to use the broiler in the oven - be very, very careful however as this takes longer and can dry out the custard without properly caramelizing the sugar.

- When all four desserts are done, refrigerate again to allow the topping to become brittle.  This shouldn't take more than 5-10 minutes.  Now, serve!  This dessert goes beautifully with sparkling wine or champagne.

One particularly successful variation on this recipe was to add quartered strawberries loosely piled in the centre (keeping them as vertical as possible) on top of the first layer of sugar, with additional sugar sprinkled over them, and to caramelize them along with the topping.  The slightly blackened fruit under the second layer of sugar was divine, and looked particularly beautiful.  Once you have the custard part down, you can be more creative with the rest.  When it comes to this dessert, the simplicity of the vanilla is really all you need - adding espresso or chocolate can be interesting but in my opinion detracts from the delicate nature of the original.

This recipe may seem very time consuming, but what it really boils down to is this: some separated eggs, some simmered cream & sugar, and a long time in the oven.  It's a definite crowd-pleaser, and a wonderful dessert after a heavy dinner; it somehow manages to be both light and rich at the same time, something a chocolate cake just cannot accomplish, no matter how good.

One last thought: the recipe can be doubled easily - but if you need 6 servings, because of the odd number of eggs in the original, I usually go with 11 egg yolks (7 x 1.5 would come out to 10.5 egg yolks, an impossible quantity - rather than reducing to 10, I always go up to 11 since the custard will only benefit from the richness).  Enjoy!

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