Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dolls and custard

Any minute now--okay, next week-- my life as Lonely Girlfriend of a Faraway Soldier will be officially over. Yippee! No longer will my 12-inch camo-clad Sgt. K. doll-- um, action figure-- have to pull girlfriend duty at dinner parties.

But speaking of action figures and parties, check out the fabulous wrestlers' wedding cupcake tower, made by vegan-punker cupcake queen Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I particularly like the topless wrester dudes positioned as both cupcake guards and flower girls. A thought for our own festivities after I get back from the farm...

Not much on the baking front these days, and I was sadly remiss on National Pie Day. I did cook that day, but only a caramel custard for the ladies of book club. I tried to explain how easy this dish is to make, but pal Diana, mother of four (including 2 7-month old twins) was having none of it. Especially when I mentioned the part about infusing the milk and cream with cinnamon sticks and orange rind.

That said, it IS really, really easy, and people are very impressed, always, thanks to the groovy caramel sauce that makes itself while the custard bakes. Plus, it requires only the most basic of fridge-and-pantry ingredients--just milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. The infusing is fun, but it's also perfectly tasty just made with a little vanilla extract.

Super Easy Creme Caramel, Flan, Whatever

3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
1 cup sugar, divided
2 tsp vanilla (leave out if using vanilla bean, below, or use brandy or something fun like grand marnier, instead)

Optional flavoring things: orange rind, cinnamon stick, 1/4 cup whole coffee beans, or half a vanilla bean, split

If you're going to do the flavoring-with-whole-things deal, bring the milk and cream to a bare simmer (just until little bubbles form around the edges of the pan). Add flavoring (you could combine the orange and cinnamon, or cinnamon and coffee), remove from heat, and let steep for at least 1 hour. Bring back to a bare simmer again, then strain out solids. If using vanilla bean, scrape out tiny seeds into milk, then discard bean husk.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Place a large baking dish half-filled with hot water into the oven.

In a small, heavy pot, melt 1/2 cup sugar. Swirl and stir occasionally to make sure sugar melts evenly. Watch closely, and remove from heat as soon as sugar is completely melted and copper-penny colored. Watch out --the caramel is REALLY hot and will stick to and burn your skin in a really unpleasant manner. It will also start to thicken and harden as soon as you take it off the heat. So, using hot pads, pick up the pot and immediately pour sugar into a high-sided ceramic baking dish (like a souffle dish). Swirl around so caramel splashes an inch or so up the sides. Set aside. It will get glass-hard and glossy as it cools.

Beat eggs and yolks with remaining sugar. Slowly pour in milk mixture. If not using vanilla bean, add vanilla extract. Pour mixture through a strainer (this catches any milk "skin" or random lumps of eggy gunk) into caramel lined dish. Place in baking dish--water should come halfway up the sides of the dish. (This water bath, or bain-marie, keeps the eggs from getting rubbery, as they would if you baked them by regular direct heat.)

Bake for 45 or 50 minutes, until surface is gently jiggly and a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean. Remove from water bath and cool on a rack. When close to room temp, refrigerate for several hours until well chilled. (Warm custard is disgusting, in my opinion, but if you're into it, hey, jump in.)

To unmold--this is the cool part--find a dish big enough so that you'll have room for at least a one-inch moat of sauce around the custard. Run a butter knife around the edge of the custard to loosen it from the pan. Place the dish, top side in, over the pan. Holding pan and plate together, flip the pan and plate over. Custard should fall onto the plate, with caramel sauce oozing down to form a lovely lake all around.

Fill the empty dish with hot water while you're eating dessert and all the extra cooked sugar will float right off.

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