What’s Not for Dessert: Crème Caramel

Looks pretty, tastes … meh.

Although my first attempt at finding a Thanksgiving dessert was a letdown, it was good to hear that at least my neighbors enjoyed the leftovers.

Yesterday, I realized had forgotten my iPod and attempted a leave-car-idling-and-run-inside maneuver, Matt caught me so they could return the ramekins. (Kimberly: “I was going to wait to return them when I could fill them with something, but…”)

While we were talking about my quest, Kimberly suggested a crème caramel. The timing was good because I had just read a recipe for one in The Gourmet Cookbook, so I decided to give it a shot.

Step one is caramelizing sugar, which you pour into a glass pie pan to form a hard-candy shell layer. Then, basically, you make a custard, pour it into the shell and bake it in a water bath — place the pie pan inside a larger baking pan, then fill the larger pan halfway up with boiling water so the custard cooks with moist heat instead of dry.

There’s something very unnerving about hearing things cracking while you’re putting a dish together. Not crackling — CRACKING. After I had poured the molten-hot sugar into the pie pan, I started on the custard — only to keep hearing disturbing noises like something was about to split apart.

At first I feared it was the glass pie pan,* but then I realized that the crystalized sugar was contracting as it cooled, which was causing minute cracks in the shell. Phew! (I still looked at the underside of the pie pan to check for cracks, just in case.)

* Once when I was washing dishes I made the mistake of immersing a chilled glass into a sink of hot water; it shattered and cut my hand in a few places, so I’m a little gunshy.)

I was a bit confused by the description in the recipe, though. After you cook the custard, let it cool off and then chill for a few hours, you invert a large plate over the pie pan, flip out the dessert, and it comes out swimming “in a sauce the color of topaz.” I couldn’t quite figure out how this was going to happen — there was a crystalized-sugar shell, then custard, so even if the shell melted down after baking, I thought the custard would absorb it or something. Where was this mysterious liquid going to appear from?

I’ll be damned if it didn’t, though. Even when the dessert was chilled, the custard was literally floating atop a thin layer of caramel-colored syrup, which you can see at right. I could move the pan clockwise or counterclockwise and watch the custard stay in place. That made it easy to upend the dessert onto a plate to sample the wares.

The flavor was a letdown two ways. First, the syrup: It looks beautiful, but it is, essentially, thick sugar-water. None of the richness of caramel—just the sweetness. Similarly, the custard was just there — any vanilla flavor had baked out, which left me with a silky texture, but little else to recommend it.

I started thinking, “How could I improve this?” I wondered if, like the whiskey butterscotch cake, I could add a liqueur to the caramelized sugar—bourbon, maybe? (I’m still trying to figure out what to do with that bourbon I bought.) Or maybe I could simmer the cream and milk with fresh ginger for a while to infuse it with a bit of bite.

But even then, I don’t think it would be something to be amazed by. This time, I didn’t even give it to the neighbors; I saved two pieces for my roommates, just to make sure that I wasn’t way off base, and I pitched the rest. Back to the drawing board. The good news: I think I may have found my winner.

WHAT SAM WORE: 11-13-11
The shirt: Long-sleeved waffle-weave T-shirt, from Old Navy.
The pants: Olive green track pants, from Uniqlo in New York.
The shoes: Running shoes by Nike, from the outlet store in Anthem.

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