One difference between American-style puddings and custards like pots de crème is that the former are thickened with cornstarch, while custards rely solely on the power of gently heated eggs. Custards have the edge on delicacy as far as I’m concerned, while still providing a satisfying, mouth-coating density.
I needed an excuse to use up some of my vanilla bean stash, which I ordered last month from Vanilla Saffron Imports.
If you do any baking at all, VSI is a great source for vanilla. While you can purchase your vanilla beans at the grocery store, chances are you’ll pay two to three bucks apiece for them, and they’ll be all dried up and twiggy. VSF’s beans are moist and aromatic, as if they’d just been plucked from the rain forest.
(Hint – They also carry saffron at discount prices, and it’s not the counterfeit stuff. Always look for saffron threads that are evenly dark red in color. If the package has a large percentage of yellow filaments, you’re probably paying for “filler” – actually the stamens of the crocus flower rather than the stigmas, which is the part you want)
When I worked as an assistant pastry chef in a fancy-pants restaurant, Tahitian was the vanilla of choice. Compared to other high-quality beans from Madagascar or Mexico, each of which has subtly different flavor profiles, Tahitian is vanilla with the volume turned up loud. It stands out like a Vegas showgirl in a funeral parlor – showy, plump and perfumed.
It’s a personal thing, though. I just really like how vanilla infused in a couple of cups of cream, egg yolks and sugar transforms simple ingredients into this sublime, sensual treat.
Adapted from Bouchon by Thomas Keller
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup whole milk
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
6 large egg yolks
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare a water bath by placing a deep baking pan ( I used two 8-inch square pans) on a larger, rimmed baking sheet – use two sheets if you have to. Arrange eight 6-ounce custard cups or other small ovenproof dishes in the pan(s).
Combine the cream, milk and 5 tablespoons of the sugar in a large saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean with the dull side of a small paring knife and add to the pan along with the pod. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat, cover and allow to infuse for 1 hour. Reheat the cream mixture until warm.
Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Slowly add the warm cream mixture into the yolks, whisking. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a Pyrex measuring cup. Pour about 1/2 cup of the strained mixture into each of the custard cups.
Transfer the pan to the oven and add enough hot water to the baking pans to come halfway to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the cups. Cover with a sheet of foil and bake 45-55 minutes, or until centers are set, but still slightly jiggly, like gelatin.
Carefully remove the cups from the pan and place on a rack to cool. Cover each with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 8 hours. It can be hard to wait that long, but warm custard isn’t as appealing.