In my humble probably wrong opinion, proteins are probably the most versatile and important molecule in cooking. They’re responsible for those awesome Mailard reaction flavors that we’ve spoken about before, but they’re also responsible for a lot more. We don’t have to look any further than the ever versatile egg. Want to whip up egg whites? Make an omelet? Yeah that’s right, it’s all thanks to proteins. Proteins are like big balls of yarn, all tangled up and such, and a lot of cooking involves unwinding the big ball, and re-forming them into a cohesive structure.
When you want to make an omelet, you crack open some eggs, which are a liquid, and put some heat on it, and blammo – you got yourself a solid. The same thing happens when making whipped egg whites, some mechanical intervention, and baddaboom, you got yourself a different structure. But how?
Well heat “denatures” proteins, which is the technical term for un-tangling the ball of yarn, and the newly opened up protein thing-a-ma-bob can now reform into a more solidified thing-a-ma-bob. So basically all there is to it, is the protein denaturing, and re forming. So pretty much, when we cook any protein (think meat, eggs, chicken, etc..) we first have to denature the protein (un ravel the yarn) and then put it all back together, in a way we want it. What’s going on, is imagine this newly unraveled yarn as a long string, and all along that string there are different areas that can now bond to a different unraveled yarn, and when they bond to each other, that gives you the dish’s structure. That’s it.
There is however one caveat, we don’t want all of the different areas that can bond, to actually make that bond, because then the proteins will clink too strongly to each other, which is bad (ie – chewy steak and chicken, rubbery eggs, whipped eggs that weep…), so the trick when cooking pretty much any protein is to not overcook it (yeah I know – thank you captain obvious).
Ok on to crème caramels. Crème caramel is a custard, which has caramel on the bottom of the dish, and then baked, and then turned over so the caramel is pretty much on top of the custard. Traditionally a custard is any egg and milk mixture. It can be baked, served raw, made into an ice cream, and all that fancy jazz. I say traditionally, because it really doesn’t have to be made with milk, and for us on team kosher, we sometimes need to find good substitutes for milk. Since you hate when I talk all chemistry up in this house, I’m going to spare you the details, but suffice it to say, that if it was plain water and eggs, it wouldn’t work, but if you add some added “stuff” to the water, then it will work. (There really is a good enough explanation for it, and anyone willing to risk their brain imploding with information overload, just ask away, and I’ll be happy to explain…by the way, now that I have you here in between these parenthesis, have you checked out The Kosher Gastronome fan page on Facebook yet? Well you should, and you know what else you should do, click on the “like” button over there, because you love me, and there’s no “love” button, so “like” will just have to do it for you…Oh and feel free to comment away over there also, that way people will think there’s a whole party going on over there, and they’ll be jealous…it will be awesome…Ok that’s it for now, I’ll let you go back to reading the rest of the article)
Ok, so if you’re lost, and trying to figure out what’s going on – custard…milk and eggs…don’t really need milk…water with “stuff” is good enough…so basically any parve milk substitute will work. Heck, chicken soup will work, even water with just a few pinches of salt will work…but it will probably not taste all that good.
First make the caramel.
Just to clarify, caramel is 2 parts sugar and 1 part water cooked together to a certain temperature, depending on what your final product is. The stages are – 1) thread, 2) soft-ball, 3) hard ball, 4) soft crack, 5)hard crack, in that order, and of course each one is a description of how the caramel behaves then, and the best way to know you’re at a specific stage is by temperature. So for this dish, we cooked the caramel to the soft crack stage, which is about 280 degrees, although if/when I make this again, I would go all the way to the hard crack stage, which is about 300 degrees. You’ll see why below.
While the caramel is still hot, and liquidy, pour it in to your dish, and let it cool.
Now it’s time to whip up the custard part. Most recipes call for the milk substitute to be heated, and then adding it slowly to the eggs while whisking (aka – tempering). You really don’t need to heat up the milk substitute (I’m just going to call it milk, because you know what’s annoying? spelling the word substitute, there’s just way too many “t”s in there), unless you’re trying to infuse a flavor that can’t be readily mixed in. Meaning, if you’re going to use vanilla extract, just mix it all together, and skip the heat up part. However, if you’re so devoted to being a foodie elitist, like myself, and decided you just had to use real vanilla beans, then you will have to heat the milk up.
You just need to heat it up to a simmer, and let it sit for a few minutes so the flavors blend.
Whip together the eggs, yolks and sugar until it becomes pale in color.
Then, if you heated up the milk, it needs to be strained of the vanilla pod, and added slowly to the eggs. The easiest way to do this is, is to wrap a towel around the base of the egg bowl, and pouring the milk into a measuring cup.
That way, you can pour and mix at the same time, without holding on to the bowl…brilliant!
See? My mom was right, I am a genius.
Pour the custard over the now hardened caramel, and put all of your dishes into one big baking dish, and pour hot water into the baking dish, so it comes about half way up on the custard dishes.
Baking the custard in a water bath allows the proteins to cook more evenly, and not over cook.
Then pop these in the fridge for at least 3 hours, and when you’re ready to serve them, just run a knife around the edges, place a small plate on top, and flip it over, so it pops out.
Look how fancy
That last picture was from my phone, and if you don’t like the picture, well here at Gastronome headquarters, we’re looking for someone to sponsor a D-SLR camera. I don’t know the first thing about photography, but I can pretend I do with that shiny new camera, and buying it for me will make you feel good about yourself too.
As for the custard, I thought it was great. The caramel top (or is it bottom?) became a little too runny, and I would have rather it stayed put on top of the custard, and that’s why next time, I’m going to cook the caramel to the hard-ball stage. The actual custard tasted great, and I loved the real vanilla in it, and had the consistency of, well, custard. Someone, who shall remain nameless, thought it tasted like “lukshen kugel,” I know, a complete disgrace, and someone poignantly retorted – “no, lukshen kugel tastes like this.” To explain – lukshen kugel (noodle kugel for the inundated), is also a custard, with some noodles baked in it. So, when you’re trying to figure out what it tastes like, just know if it reminds you of lukshen kugel, it’s because lukshen kugel is a type of custard.
Are we done yet?
For the caramel:
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1/4 cup of water
For the custard:
- 2 cups of milk substitute
- 1 vanilla bean (or 1.5 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
- 2/3 cups of sugar
- 2 eggs
- 4 yolks
- To make the caramel – combine the sugar and water together, and turn the heat up to high, and let it cook until a thermometer registers 300 (for the hard-ball stage)
- Preheat the oven to 350, and bring a kettle of water to a boil.
- To make the custard – if you’re using a vanilla bean, bring the milk to a simmer, scrape the bean, and it and the pod to the milk, and let the vanilla and milk sit for a few minutes for the flavors to infuse. (If you’re using vanilla extract, just mix milk and vanilla together, and you can add it all at once to egg mixture, once the egg mixture is thoroughly whipped.)
- In another bowl, mix together eggs, egg yolks, and sugar, and whisk vigorously until it becomes pale in color.
- Add the milk mixture to the egg mixture slowly, whisking the whole time.
- Pour custard into your dish of choice, and put that dish, into a larger baking dish, and add boiling water to the bigger dish, to come halfway up the sides of the custard dish.
- Bake for 40-50 minutes. The middle will be a little jiggly, and that’s ok. Remove from the water bath, and allow it to cool in the fridge for at least 3 hours.
- When ready to serve, run a knife around the edges, and place a plate on top, and flip over to un-mold