We, and maybe you, continue to spend the majority of our time cooking at home, rather than eating out. Learning how to make things like New Orleans-style boudin blanc, and Sardinian malloreddus, seems to bring us a good bit more joy these days. So today, we continue our experiment with cookbook fights. Last time, we debated the merits of Rick Bayless's jamaica sangria versus Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken's red sangria. This week? We are looking at pots de créme (our French is a little shaky, but we're pretty sure it means "pudding for adults").
On one side, we have Mark Peel, of Campanile and The Tar Pit fame, and the dark chocolate pot de créme from his book, New Classic Family Dinners. On the other side, we have Lucques maestra Suzanne Goin, and her recipe for vanilla pot de créme, from Sunday Suppers at Lucques.
The basics of a pot de créme are these: milk, cream, (sometimes) sugar, and your additional flavoring agents -- like vanilla beans -- are cooked in a pan, and left to steep. This is the point when you might add, say, chocolate. Then, the mixture is strained, brought back to heat, and then folded together with the eggs (and sugar, if it wasn't added earlier). After that, they go into ramekins, and are baked in a water bath. Once finished, they are chilled until quite cold.
The two versions are both similar and different. Peel's is chocolate, Goin's is vanilla. He uses more milk, she uses more cream. His has salt, hers does not. He simmers, she boils. Peel's has both whole eggs and yolks, while Goin's is yolk-only. She requires a stand mixer, while chef Peel directs simply to, "whisk well." They both bake at 325º.
As an added note, we should point out that Mark Peel recommended that his be served with whipped créme fraiche, and that Goin suggested an accompaniment of chocolate sablés. In the interest of simplifying our fight, and focusing on the pots themselves, we omitted both.
So how were they? Well, the easy answer is: really good. The vanilla pot de créme was an alluring sight, the creamy white contrasted against the tiny flecks of vanilla bean. It had a velvety, smooth texture, with tiny, crunchy vanilla bits which added a lovely textural variation. The flavors were pronounced without being overbearing, and were all quite nicely balanced.
The dark chocolate pot de créme was more decadent -- thicker, richer, and with an almost mousse-like quality. If it wasn't eaten quickly enough, and began to warm slightly, it tended to lose a some of its thickness, and take on an ever-so-slightly watery component. The ingredients also didn't incorporate as precisely, and if you looked closely, tiny light brown beads were apparent. Maybe that's the benefit of the stand mixer.
But despite those rather small flaws, it was a tasty pot de créme, with a soothing mouthfeel. To be sure about our feelings, we had the women in our life try them side by side. All three are serious chocolate fans, so I worried that they would just choose the chocolate one, despite the subtle differences. I was wrong. They voted vanilla 2-1, which confirmed our own beliefs.
So what did we learn? Well, mainly that vanilla beans and Valrhona chocolate are expensive. Also, that it's not very hard to make pots de créme, so long as you can provide a little attention to detail.
Vanilla Pot de Créme with Chocolate Sablés
From: Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques (2010), Alfred A. Knopf.
Makes: 6 servings
1½ cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 vanilla beans
6 extra-large egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
Chocolate sablés (recipe follows)
Note: The pots de créme should be served very cold so make sure to allow 4 hours in the refrigerator.
1. Combine the milk and cream in a medium pot. Split the vanilla beans in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and pulp with a paring knife, and add them to the pot. Add the vanilla pods. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, cover, and let the flavors infuse for 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 325º.
3. Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and sugar at high speed for about 3 minutes, until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. When you lift the whisk attachment, the mixture should form ribbons as it falls from the whisk. Bring the milk and cream back to a boil, and then turn off the heat. With the mixer at low speed, add the hot cream slowly, ¼ cup at a time, to temper the eggs. When half the cream has been incorporated, you can add the rest more quickly. Strain the mixture, and let sit for 20 minutes. Skim all traces of foam from the cream.
4. Pour the mixture into six coffee cups or ramekins. Place in a roasting pan, and pour hot water into the pan to come halfway up the outside of the cups. Cover completely with foil, and bake in the oven about 30 minutes, until the custard is just set.
5. Chill at least 4 hours. Serve the pots de créme on pretty napkins set on dessert plates with the cookies next to them.
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1 extra-large egg yolk
1 teaspoon coffee extract (optional)
½ cup bittersweet chocolate shards
1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Sift the flour and cocoa powder together. Add the salt.
2. In the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and confectioners' sugar at medium-high speed 3 to 4 minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the yolk and coffee extract, and beat until fluffy again. Add the dry ingredients slowly, and mix at low speed. The dough should be crumbly and not quite bound together. Right before the dough comes together, add the chocolate shards and mix for a second, just to incorporate.
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3. Shape the dough into logs about 1½ inches in diameter. Roll the logs in the granulated sugar, and wrap each one in plastic. Refrigerate until very cold and firm.
4. Preheat the oven to 350º F.
5. Slice the dough into ¼-inch-thick rounds, and place them ½ inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, until set. (They will seem a little underbaked because of the chocolate shards.)