Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Seven: Crèmes and Custards


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

According to the Larousse Dictionary of Gastronomy, a custard is a "sweet preparation with the consistency and appearance of cream ... generally cooked and can be eaten cold or warm ... can be used as desserts, fillings, toppings, or accompaniments for pastries." Thus all are referred to as crèmes.

In a general sense, all custards contain eggs. As such, the unique properties of eggs have to be respected. Rule one -- unless you are doing as we did in Lesson Six, eggs and egg products have to be refrigerated. Hot food has to be kept hot, cold food cold, and this rule is especially true for any food product that is or comes from chickens. There, that's easy, eh?

Looking at some classic custards will illustrate these properties. We made pots de crème (use cream instead of milk to make the base for crème brulée) and crème caramel en reversée. Egg yolks or whole eggs are first beaten with granulated sugar till very pale, a technique called blanchir, which is done with a sauce whisk. The color of the yolks will vary depending on what the chicken was fed, but the end result with a be a light, bright, lemony yellow color. That signifies incorporation of air and the even scattering of the sugar crystals, which changes the reflective index of the substance, lightening the color. Milk or cream is simmered and infused with vanilla beans or extract. You cannot combine the cold yolks with the hot milk -- the difference in temperatures and densities can cause the yolks to violently cook, which results in curdling -- a lumpy or grainy texture. These crème dishes should be silken smooth.

A process called "tempering" is needed -- constantly stir the blanchir egg/sugar mixture with a wooden spoon and slowly add about a cup of the hot milk or cream. Constant stirring dissipates the heat and combines the liquid with the fat. Add another cup. At this point, the mixtures are closer in temperature and densities to one another, and they can be combined with impunity, though I'd keep stirring!

Pots de Crème
For pots de crème, butter the ramekins, then pour the mixture in till nearly full. You will notice a lot of foam. Since these will be served in the ramekins, you need to ensure the surface is as smooth as possible, and the foam will leave scuddy bubbles on cooking. Take a paper towel and blot up that foam carefully and discard it. To minimize the foam, use a stirring motion when making the blanchir rather than a whipping motion (used to incorporate air, which mean foam formation), and use a wooden spoon and stir when combining it with the milk.

Place the ramekins in a bain marie into a slow oven to cook gently. Remember, big changes in temperature will cause the eggs to curdle, thus the bath and the low temperature. When done, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Serve in the ramekin.

For crème brulée, sprinkle the top with turbinado or fine raw sugar (though to be honest, white sugar will work here, too), and broil under a very hot broiler, or use a kitchen torch (butane-fueled) or a traditional very hot salamander to melt the sugar, then cool to a hard crust. Don't use too much sugar, just enough for a thin crust. If too thick, it's a pain to eat and interferes with the smooth texture of the crème.

Crème Caramel
For the crème caramel, a caramel needs to be prepared. The simplest way is to slowly heat a couple of cups of white sugar. You want the sugar to melt to a golden brown/mahogany color. If you prefer a lighter caramel, you can add a tablespoon of water and a drop of lemon juice to a couple of cups of sugar, toss to coat, so it resembles wet sand, heat in a clean, dry pan and don't touch it or aggitate it. You want it to melt together, not turn into a mass of crystals of rock sugar. When it boils to an amber color, watch it carefully till it's just less than the color you want it. While still hot, pour caramel into buttered ramekins, then quickly rotate to form an even coating on the bottom and about an inch up the sides. Since this dish will be inverted for serving, the "bottom" should be level to make the dessert even. Allow to cool to room temperature, then pour in the custard. (Also, that means you don't have to blot out the foam, since the top surface will be on the bottom when plated.) Place ramekins in a bain marie and follow the precautions for pots de crème. The dry method of caramel making produces "burnt sugar," a slightly bittersweet tasting product, which some people love.

To serve the cold crème caramel, run a knife around the edge and invert a plate over it. Flip it all over, tap the ramekin, then ease it off. The top will be covered in a caramel sauce; this dish is also called flan.

About caramel ... the caramel sauce is liquid when it comes out, yet when it went into the ramekin, it's hard. Also, if you pour hot caramel over something cold, like ice cream, it will harden. Turns out the "hardness" of caramel is not so much related to temperature as moisture. The Wookieehut chemist points out that caramel, when left out at room temperature, will go tacky, and if it's a moist day, might even dissolve. At extreme cold, the moisture is "locked up" as ice, so is not available to dissolve the caramel. At extreme heat, the water boils away as a gas, so again, not available to dissolve the sugary substance. It's hard inside the ramekin, since it's still warm and moisture is evaporating away. But once the custard is put in, the environment becomes moist, and the caramel dissolved. Of course, if you have too thick a layer of caramel, some will remain hard, but if you cover and store the crème caramel en reversée, the caramel will not harden again because of the moisture present in the custard.

Wasn't that interesting? By the way, if you do have hardened caramel still left in the bottom of the ramekin, boil them in a pot of water to cover. That should dissolve the caramel off, then clean as usual.

Pâte à Choux
Pâte au choux is a twice-cooked dough, and distinctive to French cuisine, used for both sweet and savory preparations. It's a pâte -- paste -- made with flour, butter and water, which is "dried out" as much as possible, then beaten hard one egg at a time till it's pipeable consistency. The dough is piped out into eclairs and cream puffs, but also into pastry swan shapes, donut shapes, etc. The whole idea is to make a dough that will puff up somewhat violently, so that the outside is crispy, and the innards ... well, there shouldn't be any. It should be empty, or at least cobwebbed, dry and light. It's a great place to put fillings.

The secret to successful Choux Paste -- to "puff" properly -- is the proportion of liquid to flour. First, butter cut into dice and water are simmered together. As soon as the butter melts, the temperature is ideal for adding flour, salt and sugar all at once. Waiting till it comes to a full boil will change the proportion of liquid to flour, so don't let anything distract you at this point. Stir like mad. When is it done? When the dough pulls away from the pot as you're stirring. You can stir more slowly from this point for another three minutes. There will be a lot of steam as you desecchir (dry out) the dough. Transfer the dough into a clean bowl.

Break the eggs into individual mise en place cups before you start the dough, so they are ready for you. Cover them with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. One egg at a time, dump into the dough and stir vigorously. The dough will look "broken" but keep stirring -- it will smooth out. Then add the next egg ... this stage can be done in a stand mixer with a paddle (flat) beater (not the whisk). You've added enough eggs when a dollop of batter lifted up causes the batter to peak, then curl back to form a hook over itself. The consistency has to be pipeable, so don't add too many eggs -- you can also beat an egg to add a fraction of it, rather than a whole egg.

This can be piped from a pastry bag with a large plain tip. If you are using a convection oven, pipe a smear of choux paste onto the sheet pan to stick the parchment paper to it -- you don't want the hot air to invert the paper onto your creations. The batter will puff up dramatically and become very light, and can get rolled around by the blowing paper if you don't.

Remembering that the pastry will expand at least 4 times in volume, be sure to allow plenty of space between piped shapes. The basic shapes are elongated, as for eclairs, which are filled with crème patissière and iced with fondant; profiteroles which are round shapes, filled with crème patissière or crème chantilly and sprinkled with powdered sugar (also with ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce). You can also pipe swans, as mentioned, or any other roundish shape to be filled. To pipe the swan necks, use a smaller tip and almost smear it onto the parchment -- if too large, the swans will look bloated or muscular!

There will still be some residual steam in the puff even after it's dark brown. They should be left in the oven, turned off, with the door open, for another 10 minutes or so to dry out. Or if you know you are going to fill them, they can be split so the steam escapes. Fill and coat as desired. The classic coating is fondant, which is a preparation of sugar and simple syrup, and can be colored and flavored.

With the additions of flavorings or variations in cooking, this is the basis for everything from beignets, gnocchi, cheese gougères, pommes dauphine, and the classic cakes Gâteau St. Honoré and croquembouche.

Crème Patissière
Pastry Cream is a basic tool in pastry making, used in danishes, eclairs, donuts, etc. as a filling or as part of other treatments. The English call this "mock cream" (they also call other non-cream, cream-like fillings by this name). Unlike the pots de crème and crème caramel, it is not baked. It is a custard cooked on the stove, and bound with flour, making for a more stable product. Of course, since it has eggs, it needs to be refrigerated, even after being stuffed into the pastry. It can also be cooked again, usually baked, as in a fruit danish, or for frangipane.

The procedure is identical to the custards, with the addition of flour and/or cornstarch to the blanchir. After tempering, the whole mixture is cooked over medium heat. Since the liaison needs to be boiled to thicken the sauce, it has to be stirred to prevent lumpiness in the process. Cook for about 3 minutes after boiling to cook out the floury taste. When done, put into a bowl over an ice bath to cool quickly, then when cold, either pour a layer of melted butter over to "seal" it from the air, or place a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the mixture (like you do for pudding to prevent the formation of a skin). This crème can be flavored with extracts, flavor pastes, liquids, liquers, etc. Keep cold and covered till you need it.

Crème Chantilly
This is whipped cream with powdered sugar and vanilla flavoring. The heavy cream whips really easily if this is done over an ice bath with a balloon whisk. It needs to be "tight" -- very firm -- but overbeating will create sweet butter. It should be just past looking smooth.

Okay, that's enough for crèmes ... everyone did finally remember to bring containers so the leftovers could be taken home. That's a bigger accomplishment than hours of whipping and beating, in my books!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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