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How-To

Pot de Crème, the Ultimate Pudding

Fine Cooking Issue 56
Photos: Scott Phillips
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One of my favorite ways to end a meal—whether it’s a fancy dinner at Chateau Souverain, the winery where I’m executive chef, or a casual gathering of friends at home—is with the luscious French custard called pot de crème (pronounced POH duh krem). Pot de crème is all about creamy texture, intense flavor, and contented silence: I’ve found that a tableful of even the chattiest diners suddenly goes quiet when this heavenly dessert arrives.

Pot de crème is also about convenience—you can (and should) make it the day before you plan to serve it, so when it’s time for dessert, all you have to do is pull the chilled custards out of the refrigerator and decorate them.

When I began making this years ago I focused on classic vanilla, but over time I began to develop my own favorite flavors. Here you’ll find recipes for three of the best: chocolate, coffee-caramel, and lemon. Although the flavors differ, the method is the same, and the tips below will help you with all of them.

For the creamiest texture, use a double doneness test

Making pot de crème isn’t hard, but it does call for good technique and sure-fire doneness testing; see photo #4 below. Again, this dessert is all about luscious texture. If the pot de crème is undercooked, it will be tasty but runny, but overcooking can make it grainy.

4 key tips for a creamy texture

1. Whisk thoroughly but gently. Although you’re using a whisk here, it’s for thorough mixing, rather than for aerating the custard, so go easy. Vigorous whisking can result in a foamy, perforated-looking surface instead of a smooth one.
2. Cook the custard slowly to 170°F on the stovetop. You may have seen recipes where the custard isn’t cooked at all on the stovetop and thus for a long time in the oven, but my method calls for a few minutes’ gentle cooking on the stove, which then reduces the oven time. The temperature rises quickly, so as the thermometer approaches 170°F, pull the pot off the heat.
3. Be sure the water for the water bath is very hot when you add it. This keeps the custard at a consistent but gentle heat as it goes from the stove to the oven.
4. To test for doneness, jiggle—and use a thermometer as a backup. When set, pot de crème does a “firm jiggle”: If you nudge the ramekin, the custard will be firm about 1/4 inch of the way in from the sides but the center will respond with a jiggle, rather than a wavelike motion (which would mean it’s still too liquid). Another reliable test is to use an instant-read thermometer, which should register 150° to 155°F (the hole left by the thermometer will close as the custard firms). If in doubt, take the custards out of the oven on the early side, since they firm as they chill.

The right vessel for your pot de crème

There’s room for improvisation when choosing a cup for the custards. The recipes here call for 6-ounce ramekins and yield eight servings, but lots of different vessels work: Those neat-looking custard cups you found at a tag sale, ramekins that are slightly smaller, even coffee cups or teacups will all work, provided they’re oven or microwave safe.

If you end up using cups that are smaller than the 6-ounce ramekins we used in our test kitchen, you will, of course, end up with more than eight servings (not a bad thing at all). More important, the custards may not take as long to cook, so start checking early for doneness. Also, the thinner the walls of the cup, the shorter the cooking time.

There are sets of small covered pots used expressly for pots de crème. You’ll often find them in antique stores and from specialty china purveyors (check the Web). These traditional pots de crème pots have a smaller capacity, and new ones can be pricey, but they make a fun presentation. —the editors

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