What’s going on with Mother Nature? Her spring-like temperatures along the East Coast this December have upended everyone’s normal expectations for winter. There’s just something bewildering about Washington D.C.’s cherry blossoms blooming in December!
That said, the one benefit to this month’s warm temperatures that I am appreciating is the opportunity to spend more time outside in the sun, although the reason for my enthusiasm is not what you might guess. You see, more time in the sun means more opportunities for our bodies to make Vitamin D, a critical nutrient that many of us may be deficient in, especially during the winter.
In my last post I described the importance of vitamin D and the three ways that our bodies can obtain it. Today I thought I’d share a recipe for pots de crème, an easy-to-make French dessert that uses milk, a great source of vitamin D.
I discovered pots de crème, or “pots of cream,” a couple of years ago as a way to use up extra milk. As my children got older, they drank less of the white stuff, and I would often find a half-empty carton sitting in my refrigerator threatening to spoil. Short of making mac & cheese every other day, I realized I needed to find other options for using up the excess.
Enter pots de crème, which I found by Googling “desserts made of milk.” Initially I recall being intimidated by the typical set of instructions: First make a custard using cream and egg yolks on the stove, and then transfer the mixture to individual ramekins and bake slowly in the oven in a water bath. This sounds complicated, I thought. And what exactly is a water bath?
But after making my inaugural batch, I realized how uncomplicated making pots de crème can be. The key is patience — they can’t be rushed. Otherwise, you risk curdling the eggs, which is chef-speak for scrambling them. And trust me, you don’t want scrambled eggs in your pots de crème!
My version of pots de crème is based on a Cooking Light recipe that is also featured in the cookbook Wine, Food & Friends by Karen MacNeil. The Cooking Light version uses milk rather than cream and whole eggs rather than egg yolks, substitutions that make the dessert a bit lighter and conveniently allow the opportunity to use up some of that vitamin D-rich milk that I told you about.
Not to be outdone, I’ve also added my own tweaks. As usual, I’ve reduced the sugar content a bit, and I decided to flavor the milk by steeping it with another flavoring agent first. I happen to love the flavor combination of bay leaves and chocolate, but you can substitute some cinnamon sticks for the bay leaves if you prefer. Alternatively, you can skip this step altogether.
Also, as I mentioned, you can’t rush the process of making the custard. Technically, a custard is any liquid — usually milk or cream — that has been thickened by eggs. But this can be a tricky process, since eggs, if they are overheated, will curdle (which occurs when the egg solids separate from the liquids). To prevent this from occurring, you must heat the eggs enough to activate their thickening properties (about 175° to 185°F or 79° to 85°C) but not to the point that the liquid they are intended to thicken starts to boil (about 212°F or 100°C). This means that you must heat the custard slowly while whisking it continuously so that you are able to feel the custard becoming thicker. The custard will be done when it is able to coat the back of a spoon without dripping off. Under no circumstances should the custard begin to boil! If that occurs immediately turn off the heat and whisk vigorously for a minute or so to quickly reduce the temperature of the custard.
The final steps are to whisk in the chocolate and then to bake the custard in single-serve ramekins in a bain marie, or water bath. This involves placing the ramekins in a large baking dish filled with hot water. The water surrounds the ramekins, providing a gentle and uniform heat that allows the custard to finish cooking without curdling.
The end result? An easy but sophisticated dessert that helps you get a healthy dose of vitamin D while using up some of that milk idling in your fridge. What could be better?
Chocolate Pots de Crème
When adding water to the pan for the water bath, be very careful not to spill any on the glass window in the oven door. I’ve heard stories of the glass cracking when even one errant drop of water lands on it. To provide extra protection against this happening, I like to cover the window with a towel, add the water, and then remove the towel before closing the oven door. Ditto for when I remove the water bath after the pots de crème have finished cooking.
2½ cups (625 ml) 2% milk
2 bay leaves
2 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup (110 g) sugar
¼ cup (20 g) unsweetened cocoa, sifted if lumpy
¼ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (113 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
whipped cream and cocoa for garnishing
1. Position a rack in the lower third or just below the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line the bottom of a high-sided baking dish (preferably with handles) large enough to hold eight 4-ounce ramekins with a clean kitchen towel or a piece of parchment. (This is to help prevent the ramekins from sliding around in the pan.)
2. Infuse the milk*: In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, heat the milk until tiny bubbles begin to form around the edges of the milk. Turn off the heat and immerse the bay leaves in the milk. Let steep for 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
3. Make the custard: In a medium size bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar, cocoa, and salt together until smooth. Whisk about ¼ cup of the bay-infused milk into the egg mixture, and then whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan with the rest of the milk. Return the saucepan to medium high heat and then, whisking gently and without allowing the custard to come to a boil, cook it until it has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Immediately turn off the heat and add the chopped chocolate to the custard, whisking until the chocolate is melted and the custard is very smooth.
4. Bake the custard: Divide the custard evenly among the ramekins in the baking dish. Pull out the oven shelf, place the baking pan on the shelf (making sure it is stable), and then carefully pour enough hot (not boiling) water into the baking dish so that the water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Carefully push the shelf back into the oven and close the door. Bake for 28 minutes or until the center of the custards wobble slightly when jiggled. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and let cool completely on a wire rack (about 1 hour). Chill 8 hours or overnight. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa.
*For a different combination of flavors, you can substitute two 3-inch cinnamon sticks for the bay leaves. Alternatively, you can omit both and add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract when you add the chocolate to the custard mixture in step 3.
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