Life is Sweet: Vanilla Velvet
April 7, 2009
A lovely memory of vanilla and a velvet texture…nothing more substantial. That’s what you’re left with when you’ve savored the last bite of this dessert. It is light, smooth, and delicate, a perfect ending to a rich meal or holiday feast. Called “pots de creme” in France, Vanilla Velvet is a custard similar to creme brulee, but more refined and without the caramelized topping. I like to serve it this time of year; its color and texture remind me of the gentleness of spring.
Its many attributes include ease of preparation. This is a dinner-party dessert that takes about fifteen minutes of active time on the part of the cook and can be made a day before serving. In spite of its elegance, Vanilla Velvet demands very little; it requires hardly any kitchen equipment (not even an electric mixer), no esoteric culinary techniques, and the ingredients are so readily available they may already be in your pantry.
There are few things that can go wrong when creating these little treasures. My only advice: Use the best vanilla extract you can find; it’s the only featured flavor. Also, even if you fear they are underdone, remove the custards from the oven and the water bath when they are set but their centers still quiver; they’ll firm up during their time in the refrigerator. It’s wise to check more than one to determine doneness since the amount of heat each receives can vary by their placement in the water bath.
These custards are pleasing enough to stand alone, without any accompaniment. But I think they are perfectly complemented by some little crisp cookies or fresh berries (I like strawberries dipped in chocolate) served beside them. Resist the temptation to top the custards with anything; the texture is so light and soft that a topping detracts from, rather than enhances, the dessert.
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Bake in six ramekins, each with a four ounce capacity
Adjusted for altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feet
1 (one) cup of whole milk or half-and-half
1 (one) cup of heavy cream
6 (six) large egg yolks
_ (one half) cup of granulated sugar, preferably superfine
1 _ (one and a fourth) teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
Step One: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Prepare the water bath: Place the six ramekins in a baking or roasting pan (I use one that is 9 inches by 12 inches) with sides that are at least two inches high. Make sure the ramekins don’t touch each other; you want the water to surround each of them in the pan. Heat a kettle of water to a low boil.
Step Two: Make the custard: Combine the whole milk or half-and-half with the heavy cream in a saucepan and heat on the stove at medium-low temperature until the mixture starts to steam and comes to a simmer. While the liquids heat, whisk the six egg yolks and the half cup of granulated sugar in a medium bowl until blended, about one minute. As soon as the milk-cream mixture simmers, remove it from the heat and gradually, in a thin stream, add it to the eggs and sugar, whisking continuously, until combined.
Step Three: If the mixture is frothy, remove the froth with a spoon. Pour the mixture through a sieve into a four-cup measuring cup or a bowl with a pouring lip (The sieve collects any egg that was cooked by the hot milk/cream and further helps reduce froth). Divide the custard evenly between the six ramekins and cover each ramekin or the whole pan with aluminum foil to prevent a skin from forming on the custards while they bake.
Step Four: Set the pan containing the ramekins on the middle rack of the oven, then, carefully, pour the hot water into the pan until it comes half way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custard is set but still jiggles in the center when the ramekins are shaken gently. (You’ll need to uncover the ramekins to test for doneness.) This takes from 38 to 48 minutes in my oven. Remove the pan from the oven, take the ramekins out of the water bath (I use a pair of tongs to do this) and place them on a cooling rack. Let them cool for about half an hour, and then place them in the refrigerator to chill for at least two and a half hours and up to two days (They’re best served within a day after baking, but still good on the second day). Cover them with aluminum foil or plastic wrap once they are chilled.
Contact Vera Dawson with your comments about this column and/or your baking questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vera Dawson lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude.