For many home bakers, classic French desserts are a luxury enjoyed only when dinning out, or after a trip to the local patisserie. They have an air of sophistication about them that doesn't necessarily translate into "easy to make at home."
Fortunately, the best French desserts are also the easiest to make and the most rewarding to eat. Pots de crème, or "pots of cream," are rich, sweet custards, made from eggs, cream, milk, or half-and-half, and flavoring (typically chocolate). They were named for the tiny covered pots in which they were baked, which ensured that the custard would not develop a "skin" while baking. They're also baked in a water-bath, allowing proteins in the eggs to set slowly, resulting in a thick, smooth texture. Aside from having a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth consistency, pots de crème can be made in under 45 minutes and with six ingredients or fewer.
When making any baked custards, there are a few simple rules to follow. First, slowly add the hot dairy into the eggs and/or yolks, adding only a little bit of liquid at a time. Why is this important? Just like you must ease your way into a bubbling hot tub, cold eggs need to adjust to a hot temperature. Add the hot liquid too quickly and you'll have a sweetened scrambled egg soup on your hands. Second, if using chocolate, make sure it is finely chopped before pouring the hot dairy on top. The smaller the pieces, the easier the chocolate will melt and the faster your custard will come together. Third, strain the mix before you divide it into custard cups. Straining ensures a smooth, flawless custard, worthy of its French heritage.
Lastly, the pots must bake at a low temperature, or all of your good work may easily come undone. If egg proteins set too quickly at a high temperature, they tighten and squeeze out moisture, potentially leaving you with a ramekin of scrambled eggs floating on a bed of cream. The lids on traditional pots de crème pots help minimize heat intensity. Understanding that not everyone has 19th century porcelain pot de crème bakewear, we recommend covering your custard ramekins with a sheet of aluminum foil.
If all goes well, you'll be left with a decadent custard unmatched in texture and flavor. But there's still more work to do - the custards still need time to set. Wait for them to cool, then refrigerate for at least three hours before serving with a crisp cookie on the side.
Whether for a dinner party or mid-afternoon pick-me-up, pots de crème always hit the spot. So the next time you feel a craving for French desserts, get out your whisk and set to work - Paris is not that far off.
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