Oddly enough, for all that I bake, for all that we cook and for all that I eat…with passion, desire, necessity… I write less and less about the food. Our life is in upheaval, what with the almost new home that desperately needs a kitchen and bathroom, so many projects on all of our desks, the waiting and working and more waiting for each of us, so many distractions. Yet we take succor and comfort in the kitchen and the table, gathering around a meal like a time out, the chance to discuss, weigh, tease and laugh. And eat.
Many of my far-away friends and readers have a romantic, dreamy idea of how we eat chez moi; they envision a constant flow of gorgeous, elegant meals à la française, an endless array of healthy, soulful dishes accompanied by bottles of France’s best wines bought for mere pennies at a local épicerie or directly from our favorite vigneron. Platters of fragrant, flavorful chèvre, Roquefort, tome and Camembert served with boulangerie-fresh loaves and seasonal fruits end each meal followed swiftly yet gracefully by a decadent dessert, s’il vous plait. As I continually espouse the healthy and the homemade and eschew the prepackaged and the industrial, at least where blog posting is concerned, I fear that I have given my friends and readers a somewhat distorted vision of This French Life. Well, sort of.
The bottles of wine are all true…
No matter my blog filled with homemade dishes and sinful or homey treats, we, like all families with grownup children each with their own life and schedule, too many projects with not enough time and much too much on their plate, often turn to convenience foods, indulge in take out or simply count on a catch-as-catch-can meal: boxed (yes, in France it is boxed, not canned) soup, a plate of pasta or prepackaged tortellini, grilled cheese sandwiches for the sons and sardines smeared on buttered baguette for the husband. And ah, that soulful, delicious, decadent, greasy kabob frites finds its way to our table much too often than I would like to admit. Salads and homemade pizza have become our easy go-to foods for lunches and dinners we are just too lazy to think about in advance or for lack of time on our hands, but happily both are healthy, chockfull of good things and prepared with love and attention. Breakfasts often mean packaged Madeleines and Pains au Lait, snacks bread and cheese, fruit and yogurt or matzo with jelly (my weakness) when there aren’t homemade goodies to be found. Yet for all the convenience of mealtime, the sporadic, often desultory rhythm of cooking we have recently fallen into, the kitchen has become a meeting place, where our paths cross during hectic days and weeks, whether we share the same meals or whether or not our plates are filled with the same food. During times of stress, when the weather in this midseason is dark and rainy, the dreariness seeping in through the windows, the kitchen has replaced the hearth, the oven and stove the burning flames of a cheerful, comforting fireplace.
When we do cook, he derrière les fourneaux, at the stove, or I measuring, stirring, tasting, it is more and more good old-fashioned comfort food; a rich Beef Stew or Potato or Vegetable Gratin or hearty Cannelloni, something that is big in flavor, warming both body and soul. We find joy in setting aside an entire morning or afternoon to shop, filling our basket with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients alongside a good bottle of wine, slipping on an apron and chopping, slicing, tossing in herbs and spices and watching with pride and joyful enthusiasm as it simmers, the sauce thickening, or bakes, bubbling up and crisping around the edges. Ripping off chunks of fresh baguette or dense, earthy pain bûcheron to pop into our mouths as we wait, arranging the balanced selection of cheeses on a platter for the end of the meal, pulling cork out of the bottle of wine and tossing the salad with a tart homemade vinaigrette is pure pleasure. We call the sons to the table, laugh as Marty plants himself in his usual spot just over the sill just in case, and together we dig in.
We are, after all, food people. I have more cookbooks than I can count and more enter the house every week. I stock the bookshelves with food-related memoirs of chefs, food writers and critics or simply the food passionate while he buys food-related history books. Magazines are scattered around the house, slithering off the edge of the sofa, piled around the bed and covering most every table and desktop; we subscribe to two: American Saveur and French Saveurs, and each and every trip through an airport finds me filling carry-on luggage with Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Delicious and Donna Hay while trips into the center of town have me scrutinizing the shelves of our local news kiosk for the latest issue of Elle à Table. Photos pop out of glossy pages, begging to be made; I hold up one for husband to look at while he hands me another and asks if I couldn’t possibly make this one sometime soon.
Every family needs a break from cooking and baking from scratch, yes indeed, and we are no different from everyone else. I must admit that living in France does mean less convenience and prepackaged foods and Fast Food is something we rarely, if ever, even consider. Even without preparing a proper meal, we still enjoy fresh salads and fruits, great cheese on spectacular bread, and if we succumb a tad too often to that kabob (and don’t we know the best in Nantes?!) or take out Vietnamese, or dash over to our favorite pizzeria more often than we should, we do attempt to approach what we eat thoughtfully, cheerfully and intelligently. So as my Lamb Tagine simmers, I wait for a freshly prepared, oh-so decadent Salted Butter Caramel Sauce to cool for this stunning dessert I did indeed take the afternoon to make.
The Caramel Custard recipe is from the September 2011 issue of Bon Appétit. They do suggest using a good-quality packaged chocolate cookie for the crust, which I did as well, although I have offered a link to my favorite recipe for homebaked chocolate wafers (fabulous to keep all that you do not use here on hand to eat just as they are or for an incredible ice cream sandwich). I have also decided to use my own delicious and easy recipe for Salted Butter Caramel Sauce as theirs uses corn syrup, which I neither own or use (it is not easily available in France, I have to say). And I will eventually be using the leftover Caramel Sauce for another dessert.
The Budino – the custard – was much lighter both in flavor and texture than I had expected and balanced out very well with the thick, salty caramel, the slightly sweet whipped cream and the crumbly, crunchy, chocolaty cookie crust. My first bite and I was reminded immediately of the budini, puddings, that my son absolutely loved and clamored for morning, noon and night when we lived in Italy. And if serving this lovely, elegant, very adult yet very kid-friendly treat as a dessert for those who don’t like Caramel, the Salted Butter Caramel Sauce can most definitely be replaced by a dollop of Chocolate Ganache or a beautiful, smooth Mocha Sauce.
Note: My problem with the Bon Appétit recipe was that it made much more custard than the recipe claimed; I had the perfect amount of cookie crust to go around – 2 tablespoons per 8-oz glass/jar/ramekin – yet when I poured ½ cup (as the recipe indicated) of custard in each glass, I had enough leftover to add a couple of tablespoons again to each glass (I didn’t want to add more custard than could be comfortably eaten for a dessert) and 3 or 4 more.
1 cup finely ground chocolate cookie crumbs (try my fantastic Chocolate Wafer recipe here, or use classic Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. I used locally-made Palet Breton au Chocolate)
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter, melted
1/8 tsp fleur de sel
Caramel Budino (Custard):
3 cups (700 ml) whole milk, divided
¼ cup (@35-37 g) cornstarch
¾ cup (170 g) packed light or dark brown sugar
5 large egg yolks
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter
1 – 1 ½ Tbs dark rum, optional but recommended
1 tsp fleur de sel
My Own Salted Butter Caramel Sauce (Caramel au Beurre Salé):
1 cup (200 g) granulated white sugar
3 ½ Tbs (50 g) salted butter
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
Prepare 8 (see note above) 8-oz (1 cup/250 g/250 ml) Mason jars, glasses, ramekins or similar; as you will be pouring hot liquid custard into the glass make sure that it is heatproof.
Prepare the Cookie Crust by blending the finely ground (done in a small grinder or processor) chocolate cookie crumbs, the melted butter and the fleur de sel in a small bowl thoroughly; all of the crumbs must be moistened. Place 2 tablespoon of the Cookie Crust into the bottom of each jar, ramekin or recipient and gently tap down. Put aside Prepare the Caramel Budino or Custard by first whisking ½ cup (125 ml) of the milk into the cornstarch until smooth and lumpfree; set aside. Heat the remaining milk in a saucepan just to a simmer; set aside.
While the milk is heating, prepare the Caramel for the Custard by placing the brown sugar with ¾ cup (185 ml) water in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat slightly and cook without stirring until a thermometer reads approximately 215°F (100°C).
Whisk the 5 eggs yolks in a large, heatproof mixing bowl. Gradually whisk in the hot milk and then the cornstarch milk. Slowly whisk in the caramel. Return the mixture to a large saucepan over medium heat (or medium-low depending on your stove and your level of comfort) and, whisking constantly, cook for 3 to 4 minutes until the mixtures thickens and a thermometer reads 175°F (80°C). Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the butter until melted and blended, the rum and the fleur de sel.
Using a ladle (which I personally just find the easiest method), spoon ½ cup (125 ml) or one ladleful of the custard into each glass or ramekin on top of the chocolate cookie crust. You can add more custard to each serving if you like. Cover each glass with plastic wrap and refrigerate to set, at least 4 – 5 hours or at best overnight. These can indeed be made a day ahead for a dinner or a party.
Prepare the Salted Butter Caramel Sauce enough time in advance for it to cool to room temperature to thicken but also so you do not find yourself spooning hot caramel on top of chilled Budino.
Melt the sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over low heat and cook until completely melted and caramel in color. Still on low heat, whisk in the butter in about 3 or 4 additions. Continuing to whisk, add the heavy cream in a slow stream; the caramel may foam up, but keep whisking, as it will calm down once all the cream is added and will turn to… a smooth caramel. Once it is smooth and creamy, remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature befor spooning about 2 tablespoons of the Sauce over each Caramel Budino. *
Just before serving, beat chilled fresh heavy whipping cream with a tablespoon or two of powdered/confectioner’s sugar until thick and stiff. Top each dessert with a tablespoon of the Whipped Cream then dust with more chocolate crumbs.
* If serving the Salted Butter Caramel Sauce with or over cake, a tarts or other dessert, allow to cool at least to tepid before serving to avoid burns as well as allowing it to thicken a bit.