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Let’s get fancy for dessert

There are three kinds of custards: baked, stirred and frozen, (a.k.a. ice cream).

DEFINITION: Custard: a custard is any liquid thickened by the coagulation of egg proteins. A custard’s consistency depends on the ratio of eggs to liquid and the type of liquid used. The more eggs used, the thicker and richer, the final product will be. The richer the liquid (cream vs milk, for example), the thicker the final product. Most custards, with the notable exception of pastry creams, are not thickened by starch.

The above definition comes from the 2003 edition of On Cooking. This is a culinary textbook over 1200 pages and a wonderful source of cooking and baking knowledge. There are enough recipes in this one book to satisfy any cook for many years. Since that's true, I wonder sometimes why I have close to 200 cookbooks on my shelves.

One of the favorite desserts of my daughter-in-law is crème brûlée. So when she visits I do my best to find the time to make this rich treat. Crème brûlée is a popular dessert offered in some of the finer restaurants throughout the Chicago area. However, I have found that I'm much better off making it at home. Not only does it cost a whole lot less, which appeals to my frugal side, I have rarely found a restaurant that produces a crème brûlée that equals the one from the recipe I will share in this column.

I may sound like an old saw, but I will again encourage my readers to use the finest ingredients possible when making this recipe. As a matter of fact we're far enough out in the country that you can easily get some farm fresh eggs. Most farm fresh eggs have yolks that are more orange in color than they yellow. So the color of the custard would certainly be different than the color you’ll find in a restaurant. But farm fresh eggs have a better flavor than retail eggs. Beyond the eggs the quality of the butter, cream and pure vanilla extract is of utmost importance. I would recommend using a vanilla bean as the best source of the vanilla flavor.

You will need a torch to caramelize the sugar and achieve that wonderful and warm slightly burnt sugar crust. These are available at good cooking stores, or try spreading the sugar around and placing it under the broiler. This can be very risky, but it can be done. Be sure to place your ramekins on a baking sheet for ease of handling.

Classic Crème Brûlée

Serves 6

8 egg yolks

1/2 cup white sugar

2 cups heavy cream

pinch of salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract, (or the scrapings of 1/2 of a vanilla bean)

Preheat oven to 300 F

In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and salt until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is a thick pale yellow. Add cream and vanilla, or vanilla bean, and continue to whisk until well blended. Strain into a large bowl skimming off any foam or bubbles.

Divide mixture among six ramekins or custard cups. Place a paper towel on the bottom of a 9 x 13 x 2 baking dish, place five of the six ramekins into the baking dish and slowly pour some boiling water into the baking dish until the level of the water is halfway up the custard cups. Place the sixth ramekin into the baking dish and gently place the whole thing in the oven.

Bake until the custard is set around the edges but still just a little loose in the center, about 45 minutes depending on your oven. Remove from oven and leave in a water bath until cooled to room temperature. Refrigerate cups for approximately 2 hours or up to two days, covered with plastic wrap.

When ready to serve, sprinkle about 2 teaspoons of white sugar over each custard. Use a small hand-held torch to melt the sugar. Enjoy!

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