Sunday, May 20, 2012

Crème de la Crème

I am no expert in the French language. In fact, the pronunciations for this beautiful language totally elude me. However, I do know this one phrase, “Crème de la crème”. Literally translated it means “cream of the cream” but it less literally means “best of the best”. To me, the phrase sounds foreign and sophisticated, so every once in a while I might try to throw it into conversation. However, Saturday I made a dessert that truly embodied this phrase, it was the best of the best and one of the best desserts I have ever made.

Friday, I went strawberry picking for the first time with Jerry and his grandparents. I know, I know, why hadn’t I been before? I really don’t know but I am glad that I had the chance to the other day. It was an experience that left me with red, strawberry-stained hands, a full belly, and a further appreciation for where my food comes from.


Strawberries still on the vine

Ingram’s Strawberry Farm is a family-owned farm in High Point, North Carolina. You can pick your own strawberries (which is actually a bit cheaper) or buy already picked berries. They also have goats, cows, chickens, and honey bees. Visitors can see where hens lay their eggs and the inner workings of a beehive. The farm workers here are extremely friendly and seem to love what they do. Another plus, if you pick your own you can eat while you work.


Unfortunately, we went right after a rainy period and many of the strawberries were starting to rot on the vine. But, there were still plenty of plump, red strawberries waiting to be picked from rows marked with yellow flags (to let people know where to pick). We each filled up a full bucket with the sweet, red berries. Each one was juicy and my mom later said that it tasted as if they had been soaked in sugar. The natural sweetness of the warm berries fresh from the vine made them addicting and I couldn’t stop eating them! It gave a new meaning to local for me. It wasn’t just fruit that I bought from a farmer at the farmer’s market but it was farm to mouth, berries with dirt on them and we picked the “best of the best”. There was no packaging, pesticides, or shipping but pure delicious simplicity.

There was a tractor with an attached trailer that would take you to the rows to be picked and then back to the barn. A small family-run kitchen with strawberry-inspired and other fresh desserts, like cobbler and homemade ice cream. The cobbler was enough to entice anyone waiting to pay for strawberries to the eatery and outdoor dining area. Preserves and honey produced onsite were also for sale and looked nearly as good. It was refreshing to see honey without a label on the jar because it was just honey, from bees on the farm, and preserves with a small label just large enough to fit the several ingredients, not one of which is high fructose corn syrup, that it is made from.


Me picking strawberries

When we got home, I had a lot of very ripe strawberries. I thought that I could somehow incorporate them into a dessert but I have already made a freeform strawberry tart this season and from this experience I decided no pie crust for me (besides, pie isn’t my favorite). But, I have been wanting to make crème brûlée for a while. So, I thought, “Aha, crème brûlée with strawberries and fresh mint!” I just knew that it would be equally creamy and fresh. (The mint would come from my mom’s herb garden.) Shockingly, I don’t have a blow torch but I found several recipes that said that the broiler would do the same sugar crystallization . I tried a recipe from The Kitchn because I always like their recipes and they didn’t let me down this time either.

I had deeper ramekins so the recipe made three larger desserts. I had to watch the top of the dessert like a hawk . The broiler didn’t cook the tops very evenly and it was necessary to rotate the ramekins every minute or two. I think if I made this with any regularity I would invest in a blow torch; for the time being, probably not. I served them after only letting them sit for 5 minutes because I like a warm custard underneath. The top caramelized better than I thought and it was perfectly crisp when my spoon broke through the top. If you are feeling slightly ambitious, try this recipe and you won’t be disappointed.

Vanilla Almond Crème Brûlée

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract


  • 1/3 cup fine white sugar

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Whisk together egg yolks, then add the confectioner’s sugar and a pinch of salt and stir. Add the heavy cream and whisk until it becomes a light yellow. Pour mixture through a sieve into another bowl to strain out the lumps. Add the extracts and stir. Use a ladle to portion into 4 to 6 ramekins. Place ramekins into a baking dish and place in preheated oven. Pour 3 cups of boiling water into the pan, surrounding ramekins. Cooking times for the custard will vary depending on the size and depth of the ramekins. For shallower ramekins, the custard will take only about 30 minutes to cook but 50 minutes for those in deeper ramekins. (The custard should be wobbly but not liquid in the center when it is done. It will set up in the fridge.) Take ramekins out of pan. Allow to cool at room temperature for 5 minutes and then put in the refrigerator.

Only 40 minutes (at most) before you are ready to serve, take custards out of the refrigerator. Lightly dab the tops with a paper towel to remove the condensation. Sprinkle the tops with an even, light layer of sugar so the tops will brown evenly. Place in the oven (right on the rack, not in a baking dish) and turn on broiler. Rotate every one or two minutes to ensure that the top caramelizes and does not burn. Allow to broil for about 5 minutes. To serve, let sit at room temperature for 5 minutes and eat slightly warm or put in the refrigerator for no more than 30 minutes (to ensure that the top remains crunchy). Optional: top with fresh berries and mint.


Vanilla almond crème brûlée with fresh strawberries and mint



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