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03/03/2015

~ I've Got Ganache! Gotta make Chocolate Truffles ~

IMG_3819Chocolate truffles.  Sigh.  I know people who pay big bucks for them.  Sigh.  I am not of that mindset  -- I make my own, and the end 100% justifies the means.  Chocolate truffles are the easiest  confection you will ever make resulting in the most gratitude and accolades.  You got kids?  Conduct an experiment.  Give them a choice between a chocolate cupcake, a brownie, or, a truffle as an after-school snack.  Truffle moms are the best moms -- call it "truffle love"!

IMG_3866A sweet treat as an after school snack?  Simmer down & read:

Save your "don't give your kid a sweet snack after school" rant for another blog.  I grew up getting a cookie and a glass of milk after school and I turned out better than a lot of kids walking around the neighborhood with an apple.  Also, when I was raising my boys, they got home about 2:45PM.  We didn't eat dinner until Joe got home, which always hovered around 6:00PM.  In my own "Theory of Everything", I gave them their sweet snack and sent them outside to run-off their "sugar high"  in the afternoon.  Bedtime was when they got the cheese, cracker and apple slices.

You only get out of something what you put into it.  Let's chat:

IMG_3733For the most part, I totally agree with that blanket statement, and, when it comes to chocolate in general, the higher-quality the chocolate the better -- it does affect the end result, somewhat. That said, if you're on a budget, there's no need to seek out expensive 65% cacao bars and imported cocoa powder in order to enjoy one of life's simple pleasures.  Your truffles will still come out really, really good with a bag of lesser-expensive morsels, and, it's a way to share some homemade love with those you care about.  This is the real world, and in it, unless you're a graduate of La Maison du Chocolat in Paris, most people don't give a damn -- all they want is a truffle.  If ya got it, use it, even suggest it, but don't pretentiously insist on it -- it's unbecoming.

IMG_3381Truffles are little two-bite balls of smooth concentrated chocolate ganache (gahn-AHSH) goodness. To learn more about the differences in quality amongst chocolates and more in general about ~ Chocolate Ganache:  What is is & How to Make It! ~, just click on the Related Article link below.  Thanks to my ~ Oh Baby it's Never to Cold for Boston Cream Pie ~ post of last week, I've got two-thirds of a container of ganache on-hand.  It doesn't have to be a holiday to make truffles!  Feel the love!!!

FYI:  The bigger the percentage of cacao, the less sweet the chocolate.

IMG_3746A lot of novice cooks don't know that when you get in the 65-75% range, you need to start considering adding a bit of sifted confectioners' sugar to the ganache.  I don't like to "guess" my way through ganache, so, I don't put myself through the drama.  Even when I'm making ganache using my favorite higher-end chocolate (Lindt), I stick to the one simply labeled: "bittersweet". Chocolate generically labeled "bittersweet" hovers around 50-55% cacao (a little more, a little less), and, you never have to experiment!

Trust me, nothing is worse than a chocolate truffle made cloyingly sweet with the addition of too much sugar, or worse, condensed milk.  Stick with bittersweet.  It tastes superb just the way it is, making it the all-purpose and wise choice.  Speaking of taste.  A lot of novice cooks also don't know that the only way to choose chocolate is to taste several brands side-by-side.  Chocolate is as personal as buying a car.  No one can do it for you --  you've got to test drive it yourself!  

The classic way to make ganache, the easy way to make ganache & flavoring ganache.

IMG_3369Classically, ganache is an emulsion of finely-chopped chocolate and cream that gets whisked together in a double-boiler on the stovetop.  It's easy.  That said, I threw 'easy' under the bus for 'even easier' a couple of years ago:  I heat the cream in the microwave and pour it into the bowl of chopped chocolate, cover it, wait a couple of minutes for the cream to melt the chocolate, then stir it together.  It's foolproof and there's almost no cleanup involved -- if you're refrigerating the ganache, just keep it in the same bowl!  

Whenever I'm making ganache I almost always flavor it with 2  teaspoons of vanilla extract, but, unlike some of the experts, I do not add it at the end, when I'm getting ready to whisk the cream and melted chocolate together.  I stir it into the cream before I heat it in the microwave.  I have no scientific evidence to prove this, but I think the evenly-flavored cream insures evenly-flavored ganache. There's more:  ganache loves other flavors too.  In addition to 1 teaspoon of vanilla, some of my other favorites are 1 teaspoon of almond, coconut, orange, rum, hazelnut or walnut!

IMG_33511 1/2  cups of heavy or whipping cream, heated in the microwave until steaming with:

2  teaspoons vanilla extract

16  ounces finely-chopped bittersweet chocolate, your favorite brand (or 16-ounces  ounces bittersweet chocolate morsels, preferably mini-morsels), placed in a large bowl

IMG_3353 IMG_3355 IMG_3360 IMG_3363~Steps 1 thru 4.  Add the hot cream to the chocolate, give it a stir and cover it for 2 minutes. Uncover and whisk vigorously until ganache is smooth and shiny.  Use as directed, or, cool to room temperature, about 1 hour, then cover and refrigerate until desired consistency is reached. For making truffles, you want the chocolate to be stiff, but scoopable, about 2-2 1/2 hours.

IMG_3766 IMG_3774~ Step 5. Using a 1 1/4" ice-cream scoop as a measure, place flat-sided portions into the palm of your hand, quickly roll each one into a ball and place it on a baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper.  Repeat this messy process, working as quickly as possible, until all truffles are rolled into balls.  Wash your hands.

Note:  If you are using a 1 1/4" ice-cream scoop as a measure, you will have 3 dozen truffles. There's only 2 dozen pictured because I used 1/3 of my ganache to frost my Boston Cream Pie!

Refrigerate, 2-3 hours or overnight...

IMG_3781... roll chilled balls in cocoa powder (about 1/2 cup)...

IMG_3787... and return to baking pan (on fresh parchment paper).  

IMG_3807Refrigerate for 1-2 more hours, overnight, or, several days.  

For a neat & tidy presentation, transfer to candy papers.

Serve chilled (for firm truffles) or room temp (for softer truffles)!

IMG_3875I've Got Ganache!  Gotta make Chocolate Truffles:  Recipe yields 3 dozen chocolate truffles.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 2-cup measuring container;  large bowl w/lid, or large bowl and plastic wrap;  whisk or large spoon; baking pan; parchment paper

6a0120a8551282970b017ee6938296970dCook's Note:  For another on of my favorite bite-sized candy-type desserts,  you really should give:

~ Confection Perfection:  Teresa's Buckeye Candies ~ a try.  You can find the recipe in Category 7 or 20!  

Is there anyone that doesn't love the combination of chocolate and peanut butter?  I didn't think so!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

03/01/2015

~ Roasted Lamb Sandwiches w/Lemon-Mint Mayo ~

PICT1788As a teenager in high school, I loved walking around county fairs, at night, at the end of every Summer.  The memories are vivid:  the lights on the ferris wheel, the music blaring from the bandstand, the smell of engine oil from the drag-race track, and, the oh-so-glorious food.  My friends each had their favorite "fair food" (corn dogs, foot longs, Italian sausage, Belgian waffles, PA Dutch funnel cakes, etc.).  Me?  I headed like a heat-seeking missile straight to the vendor selling gyros -- notoriously overstuffed Greek lamb sandwiches.  This was back in 1971, '72 and '73, and, this American-Greek invention hailing from New York City was the hot new trend.

Gyros_C5878A bit about the gyro (YEE-roh):  I'm told that "gyro" is the #1 mispronounced food name -- I believe that because I was guilty for years.  Food historians agree that the current sandwich we Americans eat is a spin-off of the ancient Turkish "Doner Kebab".  A proper gyro is made from well-seasoned lamb (or beef) which is stacked and pressed into a conical shape on a large cylinder.  The cylinder rotates vertically on a rotisserie and is slowly spit-roasted.  It's an intriguing thing to watch.  As the exterior meat cooks, the sandwich-maker shaves thin strips of it onto a super-hot grill before assembling the sandwiches.

1280px-Pita_girosA generous portion of meat is placed on a round, soft, flatbread (similar to, but thicker than, a pita) that has been slathered with tzatziki (dzah-DZEE-kee), a sauce made of strained Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, pepper, EVOO, lemon juice, dill, mint or parsley.  "Salad stuff", like lettuce, tomato and sometimes onion top it off and the entire thing is served as a wrap -- for the convenience of munching on it as you meander around. This elaborate process is one even I can't duplicate in my home kitchen, so, I invented my own spin-off!

IMG_3617These refreshing, flavor-packed roasted lamb pita sandwiches are the reason why I always cook two boneless lamb roasts.  I refrigerate one entire roast (or the better part of one entire roast overnight), just so my family can enjoy these for lunch or dinner the next day, and let me tell you, they are one delicious, really easy-to-make meal.

Use your favorite recipe for roast lamb, or, click on on the Related Article link below to get my ~ Succulent Boneless Leg of Lamb w/Creamy au Jus ~ recipe.

I usually serve my sandwiches cold, PICT1749carefully trimming, slicing and shaving the meat as free of fat and as thinly as possible.  Occasionally I serve the sandwiches warm, thinly slicing the meat after it comes out of the oven and has been rested. They are delicious either way and I leave that choice up to you.  

I serve my sandwiches on pita, which is the vessel that holds the traditional lamb, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shaved red PICT1754onion and crumbled feta.  You can use any kind of pita you want, but I think whole-wheat complements the flavor of lamb really well.  Even though authentic gyros are served on a thicker form of flatbread which is grilled and served as a wrap sandwich, for me in my kitchen, mine are more user-friendly and no one has ever complained.

You'll want to make my all-purpose Lemon-Mint Mayonnaise and refrigerate it for several hours or overnight prior to assembling the sandwiches, so, I'll show you how to do that first.  I love this stuff!

6a0120a8551282970b014e611634bb970cAs mentioned above, the traditional sauce for a gyro is tzatziki.  I like it alot, but twenty years ago when I started cooking lamb for my family, my kids would not eat that sauce -- they hated yogurt. So, this is why and where my sandwiches take a small detour.  I use mayo, and, I use mint because that is what I classically associate with lamb, but, feel free to substitute fresh dill.

For the lemon-mint mayonnaise:

1  cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade, or the best available (read my post for ~ How to:  Make Homemade Mayonnaise ~, in Categories 8, 15 or 20)

1  large lemon, zested and juiced, about 2 tablespoons of zest and 2 tablespoons of juice

1  ounce coarsely-chopped, fresh mint leaves (no stems), about 1 lightly-packed cup

1 1/2  teaspoons Greek seasoning blend

1  teaspoon sugar

a generous 1/4 teaspoon each:  garlic powder, sea salt and white pepper 

PICT1726 ~ Step 1.  Prep and measure all ingredients, placing them in a medium mixing bowl as you work. Note:  It's ok to add more zest, but do not add more than 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

PICT1728 ~ Step 2. Using a large spoon or spatula, thoroughly combine all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight.  Overnight is best.

Drumroll please:  Here's what you'll need to assemble 6-8 sandwiches! 

PICT1757For the lamb sandwich assembly:

2-3 cups soft, "baby" or "Spring" lettuce mix, torn into small pieces

1  6-8-ounce red onion, halved and shaved (sliced as thinly as possible)

3/4-1  cup crumbled feta cheese

3/4-1  cup diced grape tomatoes

6-8  soft, whole-wheat pita pockets, sliced in half to form 12-16 pieces (Note:  Feel free to substitute plain pita, but I think the whole-wheat complements the flavor of lamb really well.)

all of the lemon-mint mayonnaise (recipe above)

2 1/2-3 pounds thinly-sliced and trimmed roasted lamb, about 3 ounces per sandwich half

freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend, for topping assembled sandwiches

One-at-a-time, open up each pita half & cup it in the palm of your hand.

PICT1765 PICT1766 PICT1769 PICT1771Slather on the mayo.  Pile in some lamb.  Greens please.  And onions too.  

Top with some crumbled feta and don't forget the diced tomatoes!

PICT1773Lamb Sandwiches w/Lemon-Mint Mayo:  Recipe yields 6-8 lamb pita sandwiches/12-16 halves.

Special Equipment List:  large spoon or spatula; microplane grater; cutting board; chef's knife

6a0120a8551282970b019aff64b0c3970dCook's Note:  If it is an over-the-top soup-and-sandwich combination that you're in the mood for, I must insist that you give my ~ Greek Lemon, Egg & Orzo Soup (Avgolemono) ~ a try.

This super-flavorful soup recipe is no spin-off.  It's the real-deal, right down to the Greek girlfriend who not only gave me her recipe, she taught me how to make it too.  Just click into Category 2 to get this luscious, lemony recipe!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

02/28/2015

~ Creamy Smashed Cheddar 'n Mint Gold Potatoes ~

IMG_3729Lots of people add cheddar cheese to mashed or smashed potatoes.  It's a well-documented fact that "everthing tastes betta with chedda".  That said, if you've never tasted cheddar potatoes with dried mint flakes added to them, I implore to take a page out of my playbook.  Don't roll your eyes.  I've served these potatoes to a couple of schooled restaurant chefs who have changed their menus to serve "Mel's potatoes" with lamb or lamb chops.  You gotta trust me on this one!

IMG_6236I didn't invent the pairing of potatoes, cheese and mint.  My Eastern European ancestors did that for me. Where my people came from, parts of Russia and the now surrounding countries (the maps have changed over the years), the climate was cold and the growing season was short.  Along with chives, dill and parsley, mint was a hearty herb that grew like a weed.  It was the first to come to life in the Spring, but, it was the last to die in the Winter.  They minced it and added it fresh to Summer salads IMG_3668and chilled soups, and, they dried it to add to add to tea and hearty root-vegetable side-dishes during the Winter.  My grandmother used fresh mint like a garnish and dried mint as an ingredient.  That was that. Her rules are the rules.  As for the cheese, the use of white cheddar came along after they immigrated to the USA.  Back in the "old country", homemade farmer's cheese (a very dry, tangy, sliceable cheese made by pressing the liquid from cottage cheese)  was their #1 cheese of choice.  That said, my grandmother had no problem transitioning her own recipes to using white cheddar!

What's wrong with this picture?  Eggs?  You betcha!!!

PICT1549Once again, my grandmother takes center stage with this recipe.  Your not going to find this one hanging out on the information superhighway.  Yes folks, close to the end of the recipe, Baba always added two lightly-beaten eggs.  If you love the way egg enriches and enrobes your pasta in Italian carbonara, you are gonna adore what it does to these potatoes.  I love my life!

4 1/2  pounds peeled, gold potatoes, cut into 1" chunks (about 1, 5-pound bag)

1  tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning water

6  ounces salted butter, at room temperature, very soft (1 1/2 sticks)

8  ounces grated white sharp cheddar, or grated white horseradish-cheddar if you dare, at room temperature

1/4  cup dried mint flakes

1  teaspoon salt

1  teaspoon white pepper (my grandmother always used white pepper in her potatoes)

2  large eggs, at room temperature, lightly-beaten

1 1/2-1 3/4  cups heavy or whipping cream, warmed in the microwave

PICT1566~ Step 1.  Prep the potatoes as directed, cutting them into 1" chunks, placing them in an 8-quart stock pot with enough cold water to cover them by 1" as you work.

PICT1568~ Step 2. Bring to a simmer over high heat and add 1 tablespoon of salt to the water.  Continue to simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are fork-tender and every-so-slightly undercooked, or, "to the tooth", PICT1574about 9-11 minutes.  These are going to be smashed, not mashed potatoes, which is why it is important to leave a bit of texture.

~ Step 3.  Drain potatoes into a colander.  Immediately return the steaming hot potatoes to the still hot stockpot and place it back on the still warm stovetop.  Add the butter, cheese, and mint flakes. Cover and let sit until butter and PICT1591cheese are melted, stirring occasionally, about 2-3 minutes. This is why it is important for the ingredients to be at room temperature.

PICT1578~ Step 4.  In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, salt and pepper. Uncover pot, and, in a thin stream, while stirring constantly with a large spoon, drizzle in the egg mixture.

PICT1593 IMG_3676~ Step 5. Using your favorite hand-held vegetable masher (not an electric mixer), begin adding the warm cream, in small amounts, while stirring and smashing the entire time, until desired consistency is reached.

These golden, creamy & chunky beauties look perfect to me:

IMG_3688I love to serve these with succulent, boneless roast lamb:

IMG_3633Creamy Smashed Cheddar 'n Mint Gold Potatoes:  Recipe yields 12 cups or 12 servings.

Special Equipment List:  vegetable peeler; cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot; colander; fork; large spoon; hand-held vegetable masher

6a0120a8551282970b017c3492ba09970bCook's note:  I use a similar version of these potatoes as the filling for ~Pirogi:  Like My Russian Baba Used to Make w/my method for "Perfect Food Processor Pirogi Dough"! ~.  You can find the recipe in Categories 4, 12 or 22!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015) 

02/26/2015

~Succulent Boneless Leg of Lamb w/Creamy au Jus~

IMG_3633Lamb, one of my favorite meats, was an acquired taste.  My first encounter with it didn't go well. My grandmother and mother never cooked lamb and I got "blindsided" by it in the third grade.  It was my turn to play with Barbie dolls at my girlfriend and neighbor Brenda's house.  Next time, she would come to my house -- we did this often, and, it always included the dinner du jour.

My Lamb Stew (Irish Stew) Story -- "Those poor orphans!" 

Lamb-stew-ck-lBrenda's mom was generally a good cook, but on this day, she was cooking something "foreign" to me.  The "aroma" took over the entire house. Dinner was served when the Judge came home (Brenda's dad was our county's Judge of Orphans' Court), and, by then I had a splitting headache.  I'm sure the Irish stew was delicious, everyone ate it like it was. I found out later it was lamb.  I got through it, without complaint (I was brought up with table manners) by eating the carrots and potatoes (leaving the meat and broth in the bowl), and, Brenda's mom, a Southern lady, made great biscuits.  A lot of things go through the mind of an eight-year-old faced with culinary head-trauma.  As I respectfully watched the Judge eat his second bowl, I remember thinking "those poor orphans"!

Spring Forward!!!  Think Spring!!!

Why is lamb associated with Spring?  It's a pretty logical explanation, and, it has less to do with religion and lore than you'd think (although thousands of years ago a mans wealth was measured by the size of his flock, the Romans sacrificed a Spring lamb to open up military campaigns, the angel of death passed over the home of Israelites who marked their doors with lambs blood, and, Jesus is considered to be the sacrificial lamb of God).  Up until recently in history, lamb was only available in the Spring -- lambs can be born any time of the year, but here in the US most farmers breed in the Fall because the Spring weather is ideal for butchering.  

Thanks to the invention of refrigeration, and, countries like Australia and New Zealand, where vast portions of the landscape have been devoted solely to raising sheep, high-quality lamb is available year-round, and, the USA is one of their largest importers.  This is good news for us lamb-eaters because lamb is one of the most versatile meats in the world as well as one of the richest sources of easily-digestible protein.  Thank-you Australia and New Zealand!

I always roast two.  We love leftover lamb sandwiches!!!

PICT1529For the lamb roasts:

2  3 1/2-4 1/2  pound boneless, New Zealand lamb roasts

garlic powder

sea salt and peppercorn blend

For the creamy au jus:

5  cups beef stock

1/2  cup Port wine

6  tablespoons Pickapeppa sauce, or your favorite steak sauce

6  tablespoons Worcestershire

6-8 tablespoons heavy or whipping cream

PICT1537 PICT1545Step 1. Place roasts, side-by-side, fat sides up, on a rack in a 13" x 9" x 2" casserole.  In an 8-cup measuring container, stir together the beef stock, port wine, Pickapeppa and Worcestershire sauce.  Do not add the cream at this time.  You will have a total of 6 cups of this flavorful liquid.

PICT1627~ Step 2.  Season the tops of the roasts with garlic powder, freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend.  Pour half (3 cups) of the au jus liquid into the bottom of the casserole and set the remaining 3 cups aside for making the au jus.

Roast the lamb, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, until, using an instant-read meat thermometer, it reaches an internal temperature of 140-145 degrees (rare- medium-rare).

Here is my estimated time-by-weight chart:

1  hour, 15-20 minutes (for a 3 1/2-pound roast)

1 hour, 20-25  minutes (for a 4-pound roast)

1 hour, 30-35 minutes (for a 4 1/2-pound roast)

IMG_3578Using the thermometer, check your meat during that last 15 minutes of the roasting process.  Insert the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, in 2-3 places. After resting, this will produce the ideal pink, medium-rare lamb roast.

~ Step 3.  Remove roasts from oven, then from casserole.  Wrap them in aluminum foil, and set them aside to rest for 30-45 minutes. Pouring through a mesh strainer, transfer all of the drippings from the casserole to a fat-lean separator.

A bit about the resting process:  Resting meat (or poultry) it is just as important as properly roasting it.  When meat roasts, the juices naturally migrate (bubble up) towards the surface. Once removed from the oven, the juices slowly stop moving upward and need time to redistribute themselves evenly back down and throughout the roast.  This means that if you slice a roast while it's hot right out of the oven, all of the juices will ooze out onto your cutting board and undo all of your good work -- you will have a dried-out roast.  The bottom line is, even if you accidentally overcook your roast a bit, if you rest it properly, it will at least be juicy.  For a boneless lamb roast, I recommend a rest time of a minimum of 30 minutes, with 45 being better.

IMG_3590~ Step 4.  Place the 3 cups of reserved au jus mixture in a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan and stir in the cream.  Add the lean part of the lamb drippings from the fat/lean separator to the pan and discard the fat.  Over medium-high heat, whisking frequently, bring the au jus to a gentle simmer and cook for about 5 minutes.  Taste and season with additional freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend.  

IMG_3596 IMG_3597                                           Remember this is "au jus" (the French words for "with juice") not gravy, meaning:  it will be thin and saucelike, not thick like gravy.

That said, if you want it thicker, stir in a quick slurry of cornstarch and cold water (a 1:4 ratio of 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 4 tablespoons water).

Get out your carving board, remove the netting or strings...

IMG_3598... and with your best knife, slice (thick or thin) your choice! 

IMG_3617Drizzle w/au jus and serve w/your favorite side-dishes:

IMG_3658Succulent Leg of Lamb w/Creamy au Jus:  Depending upon the size each roast, and what you are serving it with, each roast will yield 6-8 servings and 4 total cups of au jus.

Special Equipment List: 13" x 9" x 2" casserole; cooling rack; 8-cup measuring container; instant read meat thermometer; aluminum foil; mesh strainer; fat/lean separator; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides;  carving board; carving knife; carving fork

6a0120a8551282970b01b8d08b91a3970cCook's Note:  As mentioned above, if a thicker au jus is what you prefer, making a slurry couldn't be easier. To learn ~ How to:  Make Roux & Slurry (to thicken foods) ~, just click into Category 15!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)

02/24/2015

~ Silky Smooth Creme Caramel (Crema Caramella) ~

IMG_3517Meet my husband Joe's favorite dessert.  I don't mean sort-of his favorite.  It's his all-time favorite. It became incredibly popular in the United States the early 1960's when Mrs. John F. Kennedy hired a French Chef to oversee the White House kitchen.  Everybody who wanted wanted to "be like Jackie" was off buying French ramekins and learning words like "bain-marie"!

A bit about creme caramel:  Creme caramel is a sophisticated dessert that is eaten around the world, but, was made famous in the later part of the 20th century in French restaurants.  It is a silky-smooth custard that is gently baked/steamed in a caramel-coated mold or in individual porcelain ramekins.  When slightly warm or room temperature the delicate custard is turned out onto its serving plate.  It emerges elegantly-glazed and exquisitely-sauced with the caramel from the bottom of the mold.  This is the direct opposite of its rustic cousin, creme brulee, which is a similarly-baked custard with a hard caramel shell on the top that is served and eaten in the vessel in which it is baked.  In France, creme caramel is also referred to as "creme renversee", in Italy it is called "crema caramella", and, if you're in Spain, it is "flan" you are looking for.  It's an exquisite dessert that comes with a built-in elegant presentation.  When prepared using individual ramekins, it is conveniently portioned as well, so serving it is a dream come true!

250px-Westin_Bonaventure_HotelThe first time we ever tasted it was in 1980.  Joe and I were in Los Angeles and were staying at the recently built Bonaventure Hotel.  We were having dinner in The Top of The Bonaventure Restaurant, which is located on the 35th floor and top story of this stunningly beautiful hotel. There's more:  the entire restaurant and bar revolve 360 degrees every hour, giving you a panoramic view of the entire city.  As we were finishing off a bottle of champagne, it came time to order dessert.  I wasn't sure I wanted dessert and our waiter suggested we split a creme caramel between the two of us.  We both loved it and thanked our waiter for his suggestion.  What he said next, was/is the best creme caramel information anyone can/could share: "Ours is exquisite.  Chef makes it fresh every morning, it is never refrigerated, and, it is always served the same day it is made." --   RULES TO LIVE BY!!!

Creme Caramel 101:  It's always served the same day it is made!

IMG_3513For the caramel:

1 1/2  cups sugar

1/4 cup cold water

For the custard:

3  cups heavy or whipping cream

2  whole vanilla beans, cut/split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out

2  teaspoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation

3/4  cup sugar

3  jumbo eggs

6  jumbo egg yolks

PICT5030~ Step 1.  To prepare the caramel: Place 8, 4-ounce ramekins in the bottom of a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. Prepare a "bain-marie", or water bath, by filling the baking pan with enough tepid water to half the height of the ramekins. Set aside while preparing the caramel and the custard.

PICT5038Note:  Cooking in a "bain-marie", or a water bath, is a technique designed to gently cook, either in the oven or on the stovetop, delicate dishes such as custards, sauces and savory mousses without separating or curdling them. It can also be used to keep delicate sauces and foods warm.

~ Step 2.  In a 1 1/2-quart, stainless steel saucepan, place 1 1/2 cups of sugar and add 1/4 cup of water. Stir briefly, until the sugar is dissolved.

PICT5047 IMG_3490                                              ~ Step 3. Bring to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat.

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, STIR THE SIMMERING MIXTURE!

Everyone wants to do it -- don't.  It causes sugar crystals to build up around the sides of the pan and the caramel burns.

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Continue to simmer rapidly until mixture is amber in color, about 8-10 minutes.  DO NOT STIR!

IMG_3500Towards the end of the process the simmering will slow down a bit and big bubbles will be forming on the surface.  That's your cue to remove the caramel from the stovetop.

Hot caramel is dangerous! Be very careful!  Do not attempt to touch it or taste it!

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~ Step 4.  Carefully pour and distribute the caramel into the bottoms of the ramekins.

PICT5055Each one will have a little less than 1/4" of caramel in it.  Set aside while preparing the custard.  During this time, the caramel will harden in texture to a glass-like candy.

Note:  To clean the saucepan easily, set it aside to cool and simply run it through the dishwasher!

PICT5058~ Step 5.  To prepare the custard: Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut each vanilla bean in half and then cut each half in half lengthwise. Using a sharp paring knife, scrape the seeds out of the pod.

Note:  I am often asked if it's ok to skip the vanilla beans.  Some say they can't find them, others complain about their cost.  That's valid.  Making this dessert with extract alone is just fine!

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~ Step 6.  In the same 1 1/2-quart saucepan used above, stir together the cream, vanilla beans, empty pods, vanilla extract and sugar.

PICT5065Place over medium heat, stirring often until steaming. Do not allow to simmer or boil. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes. 

PICT5069Remove and discard the pods from the vanilla beans.

~ Step 7.  In an 8-quart measuring container, whisk the eggs and egg yolks.  In very small increments at first, then in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly, add the cream mixture to the eggs.    

Note:  Adding too much hot cream mixture at first can cause the eggs to "scramble", so error on the side of less for the first couple of additions.

PICT5071The technical term for this is: "tempering the eggs".  It simply heats them up very slowly so they don't start to cook!

~ Step 8.  Slowly pour custard into the ramekins, filling each to just short of the brim.

PICT5076The creme caramel are ready for the oven!

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~ Step 9.  Place baking pan on center rack of preheated 320-325 degree oven and bake for 40-45 minutes.  Custard will be just set in the center and just short of beginning to brown.

 Do not over bake!  

Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely in bain-marie, about 2 hours.  Remove from water bath and set aside, uncovered, until serving time (6-8 hours).  

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~ Step 10.  To serve, run a sharp knife around the inside perimeter of each ramekin, place a dessert plate firmly over the top of each ramekin and invert.  Allow to rest about 30-45 seconds.  If the creme caramel doesn't immediately drop down onto the dessert plate, give it a little shake to break the vacuum.  Lift and remove each ramekin, allowing the golden caramel sauce to form a puddle in the bottom of the plate.

Serve immediately, savoring each and every silky-smooth bite:

IMG_3533Silky Smooth Creme Caramel (Crema Caramella):  Recipe yields 8 servings.

Special Equipment List:  8, 4-ounce ramekins; 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan;  1 1/2-quart saucepan w/lid, preferably stainless steel;  kitchen shears; paring knife; slotted spoon; 8-cup measuring container; whisk; paring knife

IMG_3475Cook's Note:  What our waiter at The Top of the Bonaventure shared with us that evening is the truth. Refrigerating creme caramel absolutely compromises its texture, turning it from silky smooth to somewhat rubbery.  Before ordering it in a restaurant always ask your server, "has the creme caramel been made fresh today and has it been refrigerated?"

If you like creme caramel or creme brulee, you are obviously a lover of pastry cream in general.  To learn how I make mine, check out my recipe for ~ Sweet Dreams:  Creme Patissiere (Pastry Cream) ~ in Categories 6, 15 or 21!      

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)