CUSTARDS' NEW STAND; They're back, with an upscale twist

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like Cher and '70s disco music, custards and their close kissing cousins, puddings, have made a cool comeback.

They've left behind their roadside-diner status and now they're on dessert menus at the toniest restaurants.

You'll recognize home-style favorites such as vanilla custard, bread pudding and rice pudding, and fancy restaurant classics, like creme brulee and creme caramel.

But there's a distinctly new taste twist.

These days, his top-selling chipotle flan has pastry chef Fabrice Mallet scrambling to fill orders at JBar, a Mexican-inspired restaurant in Tucson, Ariz.

In America's heartland, pastry chef Gale Gand dishes out saffron panna cotta with quince stew at Chicago's Tru, and pistachio-crusted creme brulee at Brasserie T, two restaurants she co-owns with her chef-husband, Rick Tramonto.

On the West Coast, David Lebovitz, author of "Room for Dessert" (HarperCollins, 1999) and former longtime pastry chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, scored a runaway hit with his nocino-infused custard (nocino is green walnut essence).

And on the East Coast, pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen taps into customers' nostalgia with her chocolate-espresso custard served with macerated tangerines and sweet basil at New York City's Quantum 56.

What's the appeal of custard-based desserts?

For diners, custards are comfort items, with attendant childhood memories. "They're popular because they're homey, yet upscale, taken to a new level you wouldn't see at home. But they strike a familiar chord and I think that's one of the things that people look for," says Janos Wilder, chef-proprietor of Janos, his namesake French-Southwestern restaurant, and of JBar, both in Tucson.

Creme brulee, in particular, has lasting appeal. "We just can't take it off the menu," he adds.

In terms of dessert preferences, Gand pegs diners as either "chocolate, custard or fruit people, and you know which one you are."

A self-described custard person, Gand believes custard sells well, in part, because it crosses gender lines. She observes that while it's rare that men order a fruit dessert, custard tends to appeal to both sexes. "As a matter of fact, I know I get a lot more marriage proposals from my bread puddings than any other dessert," she confides.

According to the peripatetic Lebovitz, who now teaches at in-store cooking programs around the country, people remember puddings from childhood. "There's something about a rich custard that makes people sort of happy -- it's a very familiar thing to people."

Jurgensen agrees people are rediscovering simpler desserts, finding custard-based ones, especially creme brulee, comforting.

Pastry chefs are always on the prowl for the latest and most exciting flavors. But, as with an haute-couture runway collection, there is always a translation process for mass-consumption taste, which is usually more conservative.

What appeals to an inspired pastry chef may not always find receptive palates among customers. So pastry chefs looking for a license to thrill often use custard-based desserts as a medium to introduce new flavors in a recognizable package. "A familiar dessert can have unexpected flavors if it's in a familiar form," says Wilder, citing the chipotle flan and chocolate jalapeno ice-cream sundaes that are among his best-selling desserts.

He wouldn't get any argument from Lebovitz who, when at Chez Panisse, led customers to unusual flavors such as green tea and fresh mint via creme brulee. Or from Gand, whose creamy comforts include caramelized raspberry rice pudding and cherry charlotte.

But these days "familiar," as in packaged versions, no longer passes muster. Pastry chefs have raised the bar, setting high-quality standards for ingredients, technique and plate presentation.

Savvy diners now expect fresh ingredients that may include a variety of seasonal fruits, texture and temperature contrasts, and myriad flavors, from cardamom, lavender and star anise to coffee and tea infusions, inside, atop or alongside their custard.

Although we tend to think of custards and puddings as comfort desserts, the earliest puddings were not sweet, but savory.

The word pudding is derived from the French word boudin, or sausage. In its original culinary context, Marie Simmons writes in "Puddings A to Z" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), "Boudin was a dish made from animal blood, mixed with bread crumbs, oatmeal or other fillers, suet and lots of spices, or from animal organs, well seasoned and stuffed into containers or casings. Depending on the dish, boudin might be wrapped in a cloth and steamed over a simmering pot of stew."

The British capitalized on this culinary concept, starting their own tradition of steamed puddings such as Christmas plum pudding and bread puddings. Even creme brulee (French for burnt cream), which we think of as quintessentially French, is of English origin.

But while the English may lord it over all things pudding, many countries have a version of a sweet custard dessert: creme caramel in France, flan in Spain, zabaglione in Italy, vanilla custards in Central and South America, and sangkaya, or coconut custard, in Thailand, to name a few.

Are custards the same as puddings?

Sometimes. Custards can be a key ingredient in some puddings, but the converse does not apply: A pudding can never morph into a custard.

Custards also can form the base of pastry cream, ice cream and a variety of dessert sauces.

Both puddings and custards contain eggs, milk or cream, sugar and flavorings, and are cooked on the stove top or baked in the oven. Puddings are flavored liquids, thickened with cooked eggs, while custards are beaten egg mixtures, sweetened with flavored liquids.

The main discernible difference is texture.

Custards, such as pots de creme or creme brulee, typically have a lighter and eggier consistency than the thicker, denser puddings such as summer pudding or Indian pudding.

Custards belong in one of two categories: stirred or baked.

For stirred custards, like vanilla sauce or creme anglaise, a beaten-egg mixture is placed in a pan along with hot milk. Here, the trick is to bring the egg mixture you're stirring to about 180 degrees without boiling it (the boiling point is 212 degrees). If it boils, the eggs curdle, thereby ruining the custard.

Baked custards, like creme brulee, flans and rice puddings, have a firmer texture than stirred custards. Again, the main goal is to avoid a scrambled-egg consistency when making a baked custard.

In this case, the mixture is baked in a water bath, which involves placing the custard cups or souffle dish in a shallow roasting pan half-filled with water to protect the egg mixture against excessive heat and overcooking.

How do you recognize when you've got a perfect custard on your hands? It will tell you, with a slight jiggle.

Satiny smooth, silky and soothing, custards and puddings are a perfect finale to any meal. The good news is that they're easy to prepare and you can make them up to two days in advance.

Orange-Cardamom Flan

Serves 8

FLAN:

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

3 cups milk

2 large oranges

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs 3 egg yolks

CARAMEL: 1/4 cup water, plus 1/4 cup to stop the caramelization

3/4 cup sugar

pinch of cream of tartar or a few drops of lemon juice

SERVE WITH:

Poached Fruit Compote (see recipe)

To make the flan: Lightly crush the cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle, or grind them in a spice grinder.

Pour the milk into a saucepan, add the cardamom seeds, and grate the zest of the oranges directly into the pan so you don't lose any of the flavorful spray of citrus oil as you grate.

Add the sugar, and heat the milk mixture over medium heat until warm. Remove from the heat, cover, and steep for 1 to 2 hours, or until you are satisfied with the flavor.

To make the caramel: Pour 1/4 cup water into a heavy medium-size skillet or saucepan, then sprinkle the sugar over it in an even layer. Cook over moderate heat, adding the cream of tartar or lemon juice when the sugar has dissolved. Do not stir at any time. When the sugar begins to brown, watch it carefully. It may be necessary to tilt the pan slightly if the sugar is browning unevenly.

When the caramel has turned a dark reddish brown and begins to smoke, remove it from the heat and quickly add the remaining 1/4 cup of water. The sugar will bubble up, then subside. Stir with a heat-proof utensil to make sure the caramel has completely dissolved.

Pour the hot caramel into eight individual 4-ounce ramekins or oven-proof custard cups. Each dish should have about 1 tablespoon of caramel. Allow the caramel to cool before filling the ramekins or custard cups.

To finish the custard: Whisk together the eggs and egg yolks in a bowl. Rewarm the milk mixture and add a small amount to the eggs, stirring constantly. Pour the warmed eggs into the flavored milk, stirring thoroughly, and strain into a pitcher or a large measuring cup. (You can refrigerate the custard at this point to bake later).

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the custard into the caramelized ramekins or custard cups. Put the unbaked custards in a deep oven-proof pan. Fill the pan with warm water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the custard cups. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the custards are just barely set. The custard will still be soft and jiggle slightly, but only in the center. Remove the baked custards from the water bath and set them on a wire rack to cool. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

To unmold, run a sharp knife around the outside of the chilled custard to release it from the ramekin. Invert a serving plate or bowl over the custard, and flip over both the ramekin and the plate simultaneously. Shake a few times to release the custard and lift off the ramekin. If it is stubborn, poke the upside-down flan with your finger to release the air lock and it will slide out easily. Pour any remaining caramel from the ramekin over the flan.

Cook's note: The flan can be made up to two days ahead of time. -- Adapted from "Room for Dessert" (HarperCollins) by David Lebovitz

Poached Fruit Compote

Serves 8

1 cup sugar

2 cups water

1 cinnamon stick or 1/2 vanilla bean

3 strips of orange or lemon peel (removed with vegetable peeler)

1 cup mixed dried fruits such as raisins, cranberries, sour cherries, currants, and apricots and prunes (diced in 1/2-inch pieces)

In a saucepan, bring the sugar, water, cinnamon or vanilla and citrus peel to a boil. Add dried fruits, reduce the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove saucepan from the heat and set aside until ready to serve.

To serve: Remove fruit from poaching liquid and spoon dried fruits around the flan before serving.

Note: The compote can be prepared up to one week in advance and refrigerated.

Creamy Cranberry Bread Pudding

Serves 6

1/2 large bakery challah bread (about 8 ounces)

2 cups half-and-half

2 cups heavy cream

pinch of salt

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

6 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup orange juice

1 cup dried cranberries confectioners' sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the crusts off the bread and cut into 1-inch cubes. You should have about 3 1/2 cups of cubes. Arrange on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until light golden brown, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Leave the oven on.

In a saucepan, heat the half-and-half, cream, salt and vanilla bean over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the mixture doesn't burn or stick to the bottom of the pan. When the cream mixture reaches a fast simmer (do not let it boil), turn off the heat. Set aside to infuse 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together. Whisking constantly, gradually add the hot cream mixture. Strain into a large bowl to smooth the mixture and remove the vanilla bean. Add the bread cubes, toss well, and let soak until absorbed. Fold the mixture occasionally to ensure even soaking.

In a small saucepan, bring the orange juice to a simmer. Add the cranberries and simmer until plumped and softened, about 5 minutes. Drain cranberries and set aside.

Divide the cranberries among 6 ramekins, custard cups or dessert cups, (or use a deep baking dish), reserving enough to sprinkle on the top of each pudding. Divide the soaked bread among the dishes, then pour any remaining custard over the bread. Dot with remaining cranberries.

Line a 2-inch-deep (at least) roasting pan with paper towels or newspapers. Arrange the puddings in the roasting pan, leaving room between them and making sure they are not touching the sides of the pan. Then fill the pan with very hot tap water until it comes halfway up the sides of the dishes. Immediately place the pan in the preheated oven. Bake until set and golden brown on top, about 30 minutes for individual puddings and 40 to 45 minutes for one big pudding.

Serve warm or chilled, dusted with confectioners' sugar.

Cook's note: This recipe easily doubles. When preparing the dessert in advance, follow the recipe up to the baking part, but do not bake it. Chill the pudding in the refrigerator, then bake it the next day. You may need to add 5 to 10 minutes to the baking time. Serve immediately, or reheat by covering the pudding with plastic wrap and microwaving it. -- Adapted from "Butter Sugar Flour Eggs" (Clarkson Potter, 1999) by Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto and Julia Moskin

Buttermilk Creme Brulee

Makes 8-10 cremes brulees

8 egg yolks

3/4 cup granulated sugar plus additional for brulee

2 3/4 cups cream

1 1/4 cups buttermilk zest of one-half of a small lemon

1/2 vanilla bean, split (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)

To make the custard: Place the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk together until thoroughly mixed and slightly pale in color. Place a damp towel under the bowl to prevent the bowl from sliding.

Place the cream, buttermilk, lemon zest and vanilla bean in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium to high heat. Just as the liquid comes to a boil, remove the saucepan from the heat and pour slowly into the yolk mixture while simultaneously whisking the egg yolks. Continue until all of the hot cream is incorporated with the yolks.

Pour the custard through a fine sieve into a bowl and cool over an ice bath, stirring occasionally, until the custard is completely cool.

To bake the custard: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Arrange 8 to 10 six-ounce ramekins in a baking dish. Make sure that the sides of the baking dish are higher than that of the ramekins. Fill the ramekins with the cooled custard to just below the rim. Pour water into the bottom of the baking dish so that the ramekins are covered halfway up with water.

Place the baking dish into the preheated oven, being careful not to spill any of the custard. Cover the dish with a flat cookie sheet or aluminum foil. Bake until the custard is just set (test by uncovering and tapping the edge of the baking dish -- there should be a slight jiggle in the custards), about 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the size and shape of the ramekins. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Place the cooled ramekins in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 3 days.

For the brulee: When you are ready to serve the creme brulee, coat the refrigerated custards with a thin, even layer of granulated sugar, making sure that no yellow from the custard shows through. Place the ramekins under a broiler until the sugar is caramelized, turning as necessary to achieve even browning. Serve. -- From Dalia Jurgensen, pastry chef at Quantum 56 in New York City This is too long for the typesetter and will not be set.

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