Sweet Corn Crème Caramel

Corn this time of year is so sweet and full of natural sugar, that it lends itself to both sweet and savory preparations.  (They don't call it "Butter and Sugar" for nothing.)

This recipe is part homage to Meredith Kurtzman, the pastry chef and queen of all things gelato, at New York City's Otto.  In addition to her famous and irresistible olive oil gelato, Meredith also has a criminally delicious sweet corn gelato, that I first had at a master class she gave while I was in culinary school.  Not too sweet, creamy and highlighting everything that is best about corn right now, it is perfect, and only available for the few weeks while the best fresh corn is in season.

Crème caramel, often called crème renversee, is a classic french custard dessert.  Very similar in overall flavor to a crème brulee, but the difference being that in this case the caramelized sugar is first placed on the bottom of the ramekin baking dish and the custard baked on top of it.  It is then removed from the dish to serve, and reversed, like an upside down cake, with the now top of the custard infused with the caramel.  The magic trick of this recipe, is that also somehow in the cooking, some of the caramel first put in the bottom of the dish and hardened, permanently liquifies, making its own sauce at the same time.  (For a crème brulee, the custard is baked on its own, topped with sugar just before serving, and then the sugar is burnt (bruleed) with either a torch or broiler, to make that crackly hard top.)

Anyway, custard + caramel= amazingly good.  Caramel + corn=old time ballpark good.  Two together?  Yes, good.

Sweet Corn Crème Caramel
by Catie Schwalb
makes 4 servings.

2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 ears of fresh corn, kernels cut off and cobs saved and broken into pieces
pinch of salt
1/3 cup sugar
3 whole large eggs

for the caramel:
3/4 cup sugar
water for brushing the pan

4 ramekins

Heat oven to 325 F.

Bring milk, vanilla, corn, cob pieces, and salt to a strong simmer in a pot. Turn off heat, cover and allow to steep for 45 minutes.

For the caramel:
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, place 3/4 cup of sugar in an even layer on the bottom, over medium-low heat. Have a bowl of cool water and pastry brush close at hand, along with clean and dry ramekins. Swirling the pan frequently to evenly distribute the heat, gently heat the sugar until it is uniformly amber. Use the pastry brush to brush cold water around the edges as crystals form. Do not stir the caramel with a spoon, or bubbles will form.

The caramel will turn in seconds from ready to burnt. Have your ramekins ready and close and remove the pan from heat as it gets close to amber. If you need to buy yourself some time, throw an ice cube in the pan to stop the cooking briefly.

Once the caramel is ready, very carefully pour enough to cover the bottom into each ramekin. Swirl to evenly coat and allow to harden. The caramelized sugar is extremely hot, so if you get some on your hands, resist the urge to stick it in your mouth, and stick it in the bowl of cool water for the pastry brush. (Note:  To remove the hardened extra caramelized sugar from the pan and utensils, boil water in the pan until it all dissolves.  This will also help with removing any extra caramel from the ramekins after serving.)

Put the three eggs with 1/3 cup of sugar in a medium mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine, until pale yellow.

Once the milk mixture has had time to steep, remove the vanilla bean and corn cobs.  Gently blend the milk with the corn kernels in either a blender or with an immersion blender.  Strain back into the pot, getting as much liquid from the corn solids as possible.  Bring to a simmer, and then gradually pour the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the eggs and sugar, whisking constantly.  Skim off any bubbles or foam from the top.

Evenly distribute the custard into the four ramekins.  Place ramekins in a sided baking dish, and pour boiling water into the dish, so it comes half-way up the side of the ramekins.  A tea kettle works best for this.

Bake custards at 325 for 35-45 minutes, until they no longer wiggle when the pan is gently shaken.  Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly, or chill.  They can be served soon out of the oven, or cold.

To serve, gently slide a knife around the edge of the ramekin, to break the seal of the custard, and with a quick movement, invert the ramekin onto a serving plate.  Remove the ramekin, and the custard, plus its sauce, should remain on the plate.  The creme caramels can be made up to two days in advance, and kept in the refrigerator, in their ramekins, covered with plastic wrap.

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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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