France was in the air this weekend. I had friends over for the latest Sunday Lunch and this time, I paid homage to my French friends with a big beautiful cassoulet in the very special Not Freres Poterie terra cotta cassole I lugged through three airports on my return home. I also took the opportunity to serve some of the luscious tinned duck tidbits I purchased this summer in the heart of canard country. While traveling through Southwest France, I amassed a large collection of bits and pieces preserved in duck fat in the trunk of my rented Renault. Part edible souvenirs and part fascination, they were simply things I couldn’t pass up – cans of confit duck gizzards, foie gras stuffed duck hearts, duck confit, duck rillettes. Tasty stuff and the single reason I paid an exorbitant overweight baggage fee at Charles de Galle. No time like the present to use them and this was a crowd of happy and eager eaters. It was a fabulous afternoon/evening of good food, laughter and many, many bottles of wine. Exactly what I envisioned this lunches to be when I started.
The cassoulet was the centerpiece of the table and it was a beauty. Cassoulet is a very traditional bean dish from Southwest France and though there are variations, most notably between those from Toulouse versus Carcassonne, it is essentially white beans cooked in a large pot with various meats. Mine contained duck confit, saucisson de Toulouse – a mild garlicky pork sausage I bought from Rob at The Butcher & Larder – and some browned lamb stew meat. It was a pretty straight version from the recipe on my friend Kate Hill’s site. (I long to attend her “Camp Cassoulet” class.) Served with nothing else but some freshly baked bread, it was comforting, filling and delicious. Traditionally served in cold weather, I couldn’t really help that it was 50 degrees and sunny outside. It was February in Chicago after all. How could I possibly know?
For dessert, I served chocolate pots de crème made more interesting with the addition of malt powder. Chocolate Malteds in custard form, if you will. I really like the added dimension the malt contributes and honestly, chocolate malts are one of my very favorite things. Pots de crème is a baked custard, a fancy pudding really, but so much more rich and creamy. I think it’s one of the easiest to make as long as you do a few key things. One, strain the mixture before pouring into the ramekins to remove any miscellaneous cooked egg bits that could mar the final texture. Two, always bake in a water bath for a nice even and gentle heat. This helps ensure that beautiful texture. Third, know when to pull the pan from the oven. The outside should be just set and the center should just barely jiggle. Less time and the custard is loose and runny; more and the eggs overcook and the texture isn’t silky smooth. Finally, let the custards cool completely before refrigerating for a few hours. Follow these simple steps and you’ll have a remarkable dessert that belies its simplicity.
Another important tip is to cover the pan tightly to contain the heat. I use regular old plastic wrap and it’s just fine – no burning or melting whatsoever. You can use foil if the idea of putting plastic wrap in the oven frightens you but the disadvantage is you can’t see what’s going on in your ramekins and the seal isn’t as tight. Trust me, when taking a pan full of hot water in and out of the oven; it’s much easier when you can see what’s going on in that pan. And really, don’t worry about the plastic wrap, I do it all the time in moderate oven temperatures.
Another nifty tip I picked up from Dorie Greenspan is to line the roasting pan with paper towels. They’ll keep the ramekins from slipping around which means you’re less likely to slosh water inside. Brilliant.
A quick note: Happy Paczki Day! Be sure to fill up on those wonderful Polish doughnuts today! And you know, there’s still time to make your own. C’mon, you can do it.
on this blog two years ago: blood orange marmalade
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: TRES MAGNIFIQUE! This a really good one. A very elegant dessert that is surprising easy to pull together. If you do it right, the texture is impeccable. It’s all about knowing when to take them out of the oven – remember: outside just set, center slightly jiggles. Quite the showpiece – it’s a good show-off dessert with the added bonus is you can – and need to – make it ahead.
CHOCOLATE MALTED POTS DE CRÈME based on a recipe by Dorie Greenspan
makes 8 4-ounce ramekins
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, 60% cacao or more
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 large egg
5 large egg yolks
½ cup + 2 Tablespoons malt powder (I used Carnation, readily available at grocery stores)
2 Tablespoons sugar
pinch of kosher salt
- Get ready: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 300°F. Put a kettle or pot of water on to boil. Line a large roasting pan or 9” x 12” Pyrex dish with paper towels (to keep the ramekins steady during baking) and place 8 4-ounce ramekins, soufflé dishes or custard cups on top of the paper towels. Do not crowd – there should be about 1” between the ramekins. If you have to, use two pans.
- For the custard: Place chocolate in a small bowl and melt over a double boiler until smooth or in the microwave in 45-second bursts at 50% power, stirring between bursts.
- Make a ganache – bring ½ of the cream (¾ cup) to a low boil.
- Pour hot cream over melted chocolate and stir with a rubber spatula until combined. Set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, bring the remaining cream (¾ cup), milk (1 ½ cups) and malt powder to a boil over medium-high heat.
- In a large bowl, whisk yolks, whole egg, sugar and salt until well blended.
- Temper the yolk mixture to prevent curdling: add a small amount of the hot cream/milk into the yolks while whisking to warm the yolks slightly. Continue in 2-3 more increments until all the cream has been added.
- Add the ganache to the egg/milk mixture and whisk to combine.
- Skim off any foam and strain mixture into a liquid measuring cup or bowl with a pour spout.
- Pour into chosen dishes filling ¾ full.
- Bake: Place ramekins in roasting pan and fill the pan with hot water, halfway up the side of the ramekins.
- Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap; poke two holes in the wrap and carefully place in oven, careful not to slosh any water into the ramekins.
- Bake about 30-35 minutes. Custards are done when the tops are dark, the edges are set and the center jiggles ever so slightly.
- Remove pan from the oven and cool in water bath for 10 minutes, then cool to room temperature on a wire rack.
- Chill for at least 2 hours, covered. (Can be made two days ahead. Keep refrigerated.)
- Serve garnished with lightly sweetened whip cream, crushed malt balls and chocolate shavings if desired.