Chocolate Pots de Crème

At the end of 2013, the husband and I packed our bags and headed north.  The husband’s family acquired in August a vacation-cum-pre-retirement home about four hours north of our humble Oakland abode.  Said home is nestled, and yes the verb must be nestled, in the redwoods, tucked in on all four sides.  There, the husband and I have been appointed a room wherein we have begun to nest with big, furry blankets and a quilt from my aunt.  The house is in no uncertain disarray with the kitchen having recently been torn out and reinstalled and boasts not a lick of solid furniture on the main floor save that of the white-plastic-lawn-chair kind and a dining table.  However, when we come up, we do so with his parents, who in their generosity have made us feel as if this place has become our own as well.  

On the 28th of December, the in-laws invited over some friends from the area, and the husband and I prepared the first official dinner in the new kitchen.  In a sweet, overheard phone call to those friends, the father-in-law declared that the “kids” had safely arrived at the house and informed the friends of the expected prandial time.  The husband and I are forty or nearly forty, so it was delightful and dear to hear ourselves referred to as the “kids.” I suspect that the husband will always be the “kid.”

We “kids” had spent the morning on the haul road (the former train tracks turned asphalt road which was once the redwood haul route from the forests to the lumber yards) that runs along 10-mile beach—the husband walked and I ran (read: shuffled for 2.5 miles).  The view was incredible, and it provided the backdrop for an inspiring end of the year.  After such a gentle start of the day, we had to launch into high gear, and we “kids” took on the dinner-making responsibilities.  The husband whipped up a supplementary batch of chile verde to augment the remains of one we had cooked for Boxing Day, and I zeroed in on the pots de crème from the Zuni Café Cookbook.  Given that one of the guests was gluten sensitive, I knew I needed to avoid all of the fabulous and certainly tasty tarts that called with their sweet siren song from this favorite of favorite cookbooks.  Avoid them I must.  Usually, I would have steered clear of this recipe, as it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, and when serving guests, I admit to liking a bell or whistle or two.

However, don’t let the seeming simplicity of the recipe or even the presentation throw you off.  These pots de crème are quite lovely.  I used Ghirardelli chocolate, as that was the only bittersweet offering in the local grocery store.  Ghirardelli is a solid choice of chocolates—neither too high end nor too pedestrian—and it produced a sweet yet slightly acidic pudding that was divine.  Judy Rogers (another of the celebrated chefs who died in 2013) also recommends (although because I didn’t use it, I didn’t list it below) a “splash of Cointreau or Frangelico” to be added after straining the milk mixture into the chocolate; had I felt so inclined to purchase the $15 Frangelico for a one-time use, I think it would have been a fantastic addition to the glorified pudding.  If you have either on hand, I recommend its addition; however, without it, the pudding is still quite wonderful.

It’s nice to think back over this past year and where it has meandered in its serpentine course.  A year ago, my dear friend had only been recently diagnosed with lymphoma; come late summer she was in remission, but she spent a trying year in chemotherapy and radiation (in addition to having her house robbed).   Ever inspiring, she has signed up for her next half marathon, and I am doing my best to join her at the end of March.  This November, my best friend forever and ever (as in we’ve known each other since I was four and she was five) experienced the loss of her father (a man who could not imagine what two fourteen-year-old girls who had spent the last 48 hours together could possibly have to say to one another on the phone a mere fifteen minutes after their parting yet nonetheless tolerated their incessant chatter); I at least had the ability to fly back to Illinois to spend some time with her, going though his clothes, looking at old pictures—a memory I do not count as one of the pleasurable ones but I do count it among the good ones.  I was lucky enough to spend the summer and then again just before Thanksgiving among the nieces and nephews, who never fail to delight and amuse--what with their giant squirrel head masks and their One Direction full body cut outs, their surprisingly good clarinet playing, their declarations that I am indeed a good tickler, and their sweet insistence that I should not live in California given that there are no children out here.  I have been on the phone bi-weekly with both parents, I have eaten sushi with dear friends who have returned from Guam, I have brunched with yoga friends, had coffee and trips to CVS for holiday cards with dear friends from work, and have bemoaned the writing of Hesse and celebrated that of Barnes with my book group (of course, their ill-begotten opinions may differ from mine).  The good and the bad, we’ve put 2013 to bed. 

And these lucky “kids” did so with pots of fancy chocolate pudding among the redwoods of Northern California. 

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Turkey Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Mushroom Soup with Kale and Potatoes
Four Years Ago: Chicken Legs with Wine and Yams

Chocolate Pots de Crème
Adapted from The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking

Serves 4

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
¾ cup heavy cream (separated into 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)
¾ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks

1.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

2.  Melt the chocolate with ½ cup of the cream in a small pan or bowl poised over simmering water (a double boiler), stirring occasionally.  Remove from the heat.

3.  Warm the remaining ¼ cup cream, the milk, and sugar in a small saucepan, stirring just to dissolve the sugar.

4.  In a medium howl, whisk the yolks, and then slowly sit in the warm milk mixture.  Pour the mixture through a strainer into the melted chocolate and stir to combine.

5.  Pour the mixture into four 4- to 5-ounce ramekins and place at least an inch apart in a baking dish.  Add hot water to come to barely ½ inch beneath this lip of the cups.  Bake until the custard is just set at the end edges but still soft in the center, about 45 minutes.  To check, life a pot and tilt; the center should bulge.  The eggs will continue to cook after you pull the custards from the oven and the chocolate will harden as it cools.  Cool, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. 


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