I often go through phases where I try out several dishes from the same cooking method in order to teach myself new skills through trial and error. Recently, I’ve been doing puddings, which the green tea silken tofu can be considered one type of.
However, tofu-making a quite different from custard puddings, which involve gently heating eggs and milk (sometimes cream as well) to set it into a soft, smooth consistency.
Crème caramel certainly isn’t healthy or allergy-friendly by any means (fortunately I can tolerate dairy products) but I wanted to make something classic, basic and follow the instructions very precisely in order to become familiar with the cooking technique.
First of all, I needed to acquire suitable dishes of the appropriate size that were also oven-safe. Compared to unlabelled ceramic ramekins, Pyrex glassware seemed the most reliable and they sell custard cups in packs of 4 (or individually at Sia Huat). These also make pretty serving dishes and are great for cooking prep too.
However, my purchase was initially derailed by a Tangs sales assistant who told me that only Pyrex ‘Bakeware’ range was oven-safe and the custard cups were not part of this series. A check on the Pyrex website showed this information was incorrect and I phoned the Singapore distributor to get a definitive answer. Fortunately I managed to rush back to Tangs in time to take advantage of the 20% discount on Pyrex going on during that period : ).
I used the detailed instructions in Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America, which turned out extremely well. It says 6 servings, which fit six Pyrex custard cups perfectly.
The process of making crème caramel basically involves three important cooking steps, plus a crucial fourth stage of refrigeration for at least 24 hours.
Don’t forget to preheat the oven to 325°F/ 160°C — a slow oven.
Part I: making the caramel
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 tsp lemon juice
3 Tbs warm water
Put sugar and lemon juice in a pot and bring to the boil over high heat. It’s important to keep stirring constantly to prevent the sugar from burning. Once all has melted, stop stirring and begin swirling the pan to cook under the sugar is a rich golden brown, 3-4 minutes. It’s important not to stir the melted sugar or else you will end up with gritty bits that spoilt the texture of the caramel. When caramel has reached the desired colour, add the warm water and stir over low heat until all hard bits are dissolved. Divide the caramel amongst the 6 custard cups.
I wonder if I overcooked the caramel as it tasted slightly bitter, or perhaps it was the amount of citric acid (in place of lemon juice) that I used?
Part II: making the custard
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
1/8 tsp salt
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
Combine the milk, 1/4 cup of sugar and the salt in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Be careful not to scorch the milk which will result in it sticking to the bottom of the pan and having a burnt flavour. To avoid this, don’t use too high a heat, keep stirring the milk and use a heavy bottomed-pan. Once the milk starts to simmer, remove from heat and keep warm.
Blend the egg and egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a heatproof bowl. The important thing at this stage is handling the eggs so that they do not get cooked by the hot milk, so temper the eggs by gradually adding the hot milk a little bit at a time and whisking constantly. Then add the vanilla extract.
To achieve a fine, uniform smoothness of the custard, strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into the prepared custard cups, filling them 3/4 full.
Part II: baking the custard
Prepare your custard cups by coating lightly with cooking spray or a bit of oil. Place them in a deep baking pan, into which a kitchen towel has been placed over the bottom.
Put the baking pan on a pulled-out oven rack. You should have a kettle full of boiling water ready at this point. Add enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the custard cups. The kitchen towel will prevent the dishes from sliding around in the water-filled pan.
The water bath and the slow oven ensure the custard cooks evenly and smoothly. Here is a photo of my pumpkin custard which I tried to speed up by using ‘Fan Bake’ function — you’ll notice that the top is overcooked, resulting in the uneven texture and it formed a leathery skin o the top compared to the smooth custard below. Hence, slow even cooking is what one is trying to achieve with puddings.
Slide the rack back into the oven and bake for for 20-25 mins until the edges have set and a coin-sized spot in the centre jiggles slightly when a custard is shaken. I had some difficulty interpreting this instruction so I relied on a bit of intelligent guesswork to figure out if the custard was ready.
Part IV: refrigeration
Remove the custards from the water bath; you might like to use a pair of tongs to remove them; tongs with slip-proof silicon tips would be great. Let the custards cool on a wire rack, wrap individually then refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 3 days. I have kept custards in the fridge for longer than that, and after day 4, there is a distinct drop on taste and texture.
The 24-hour resting period is required for the custard to cool and become firm enough to unmould, and for the caramel sauce beneath needs time to reabsorb some moisture and turn into a liquid.
To serve, warm a sharp knife in warm water and run around the edges of each cup. Turn the custards out onto chilled plates.