There's something about winter that makes my domestic instincts kick into overdrive. Namely, I clean more than usual—which is to say, more than not at all—and I get the cajones to bake things I'd never consider at other times of the year. Buches de Nöel, cookies, bars, homemade high-protein chocolate cake. But here's a secret: I'm a terrible baker. I just don't have the temperament for it, nor the attention to detail, the exactness or the 400-level math skills it requires. Other cooks I know share the same attitude.
They'd rather just get baked.
In any case, may I suggest some creamy puddings and custards instead? The smooth, sweetened mixture of milk and eggs makes for a comforting end to sturdy winter meals, yet it requires no yeast to rise, no flour to sift. It's more cooking than baking, and you can cook, can't you? If you're pressed for time, these puddings can be covered with a sheet of plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to two days. Blot chilled puddings very gently with paper towels before serving.
Cait's Pumpkin Crème Brûlée
Whenever we go out to eat, the holy grail of my friend Cait's dining experience is finding 1) good crème brûlée, 2) something that involves pumpkin or 3) stuff she can reproduce at home without fear of complete failure. This hits the mark on all three.
Makes 6 4-ounce servings
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, plus 6 teaspoons for topping custards
1) Preheat your oven to 325ºF.
2) Place cream and spices in a heavy saucepan, then gently heat until cream begins to form small bubbles. Turn off heat and whisk in pumpkin puree.
3) Beat the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl until the mixture is well-combined and a light yellow color. Add half the warm cream mixture to the bowl with the egg mixture, then slowly whisk in the rest of the cream mixture. (This prevents scrambled eggs from occurring. Whisk gently to avoid creating bubbles in the mixture.)
4) Once the egg and cream mixtures are completely blended, strain the resulting custard mixture through a fine strainer, or a sieve lined with a few pieces of cheesecloth. Ladle the custard into 6 4-ounce ramekins.
5) Make a bain-marie: Set the ramekins in a metal baking dish and add enough warm water to the baking dish to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for one hour, until the center of each custard is almost set. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and refrigerate, uncovered, for 4 hours.
6) If you don't have a chef's blowtorch, preheat your oven's broiler. Evenly sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over the top of each custard. Use a torch to "burn" the sugar on top, or broil on the second rack of your oven for about 4 minutes, or until golden.
This vegan pudding is a traditional Algonquian recipe from the southeast part of the country, but persimmons grow wild as far west as Texas, and stretch latitudinally from Florida to Connecticut. Commercial persimmons are in season right now, but if you want a taste of the real stuff, you can buy unsweetened wild persimmon pulp (frozen and shipped overnight) from Dillman Farm in Bloomington, Ind. ($5.25 for a 16-ounce tub, www.dillmanfarm.com). k
Serves 6 to 8
4 large eggs
2 cups unsweetened persimmon pulp, made from mashed, ripe persimmons
1/2 cup maple syrup
1) Preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter a shallow 9-inch pie pan or baking dish.
2) With an electric mixer, beat eggs until pale yellow and slightly thickened. Beat in persimmon pulp and maple syrup.
3) Pour batter into pie pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the center is set and the edges are lightly browned.
4) Cut into pie wedges and serve with fresh whipped cream, real vanilla ice cream or a dairy- and egg-free alternative.
Sticky Chocolate Pudding
Not too sweet and smooth as silk. The success of this dish depends almost entirely on the quality of the chocolate you use: Buy Valrhona, or the best you can afford.
1) Preheat oven to 275°F, with the oven rack set in the middle position.
2) Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into a 2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan with tip of a paring knife, then add pod, milk, cream and sugar. Bring just to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add chocolate and cook over medium-high heat, stirring gently with a whisk, until chocolate is melted and mixture just boils. Remove from heat.
3) Pour mixture into a metal bowl. Set bowl in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Whisk in yolks, then pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart measure, discarding pod and any other solids.
4) Divide mixture among ramekins. Bake in a water bath until puddings are just set around edge but centers wobble when ramekins are gently shaken, about 1 hour.
5) Cool puddings in water bath 1 hour, then remove from water and chill, uncovered, until cold, at least 1 hour.