Baked Custard (pot du crème)

The family of baked custards includes the king of desserts, crème brulee, with a crackly caramelized crust of sugar burned by the heat of a torch. Left naked, the custard is called pot de crème. Should you pour caramel into the baking dish before you bake the custard, it can be inverted and served as a crème caramel, or flan.

Because these custards are baked in individual heat proof baking dishes called a ramekin, they must be baked in a water bath. The surrounding water insulates the ramekin allowing a slow, even bake for the custard inside. Without the water bath, the baking dish will become too hot from the heat of the oven, causing the custard to curdle at the edges.

150g    egg yolks

100g    sugar

1          vanilla bean

500g    cream

100g    milk

  1. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Place the sugar in a medium sized bowl. Split the vanilla bean lenghthwise and scrape the seeds into the sugar, reserving the pot for another use.
  3. Use your fingers to rub the vanilla seeds into the sugar. The granulated sugar will help break apart the goo that holds all the seeds together, and as you rub you will disperse all these seeds into the sugar evenly. Sift the vanilla sugar into a bowl and add the egg yolks, and whisk until the two are evenly combined.
  4. Place the cream and milk in a pot and cook over medium high heat until it comes to a simmer. Carefully add the cream and milk to the egg yolks, and whisk until evenly combined. Let the custard sit for 30 minutes, allowing any foam to rise to the top of the container to be spooned away.
  5. Divide the custard between four 6-ounce baking vessels, filling them ¾ of the way full (each should have a little over 200g).
  6. Place the custard cups in an ovenproof baking pan, like a 9 by 12 inch cake pan, with sides taller than the custard cups. Add the hottest tap water you can get from your faucet to the baking pan until the water level comes half way up the sides of the custard cups. Cover the baking pan with foil, and cut 6 vents in the foil to allow steam to escape. (I recommend preparing this on your stove top or the surface closest to your oven so transport into the oven doesn’t splash water into the custards.)
  7. Bake the custards for 40 minutes, untouched. After 40 minutes, open your oven pull the rack forward. Lift the foil carefully, avoiding the steam that will escape, it gives nasty burns. To check for doneness, tap one of the custard cups to asses the jiggle of the baked custard. If it ripples, the custard is not yet set, return the foil cap, shut the oven door, and bake another 10 minutes before checking again.
  8. If the custard jiggles like barely set jell-o, get that pan out of the oven! Your custards are baked to perfection and need to be removed from the water bath to stop cooking. I like to use a pair of garden gloves to carefully lift the hot custard cups from the water bath, and set them on a wire rack. You can use a spatula, or any other method that keeps your fingers from burning, and the custards from tipping to the side, thus tearing the extremely delicate, barely set custard. Let the custards cool at room temperature for about 10 minutes, then transfer them to the refrigerator to set for 4 hours minimum.
  9. If the custards don’t have any bounce left when you tap them, they are over cooked, get them out of the oven and onto a wire cooling rack, pronto. There is the likelyhood that these custards will have tiny bubbles along the exterior, a sign that they were overcooked in the oven. Chill them and eat them anyways, they might not win a ribbon at a french county fair, but they will be darn tasty.
  10. Once your baked custards are set, you can serve them as pot du crème, with a simple topping of crushed raspberries, a little caramel sauce, or nothing at all. Should you sprinkle the custards with granulated sugar, then use a torch to burn that sugar into caramel-y brown submission, you will have the king of all desserts, the crème brulee on your hands. Note: a blowtorch is necessary to caramelize the sugar instantaneously without melting the custard underneath.