Perhaps I was still in that hazy, sleep deprived, beyond exhausted, new mom phase when I thought it was a good idea to board an airplane with a weary three month old clinging to my chest, a doe-eyed toddler nervously gripping my leg, and the cumulative weight of the reality of heading to a city I had never stepped in, to walk into a house that I hastily agreed to buy sight unseen, resting uneasily on my shoulders. What had I done? Eight years later, the answer is as clear as the sunlight streaming through the honey jars lining a bee farm wall.
This is the life my family was meant to have, in a small town on the outskirts of Nashville, where neighbors are family, kindness is freely dispensed and we still believe in the goodness of one another. Where, if your local honey farmers aren’t home, you honor their trust in you by paying for the sweet fruits of their honest labor.Before I even pulled out of the muddy dirt road of the Johnson’s Honey Farm, I knew I had to create a recipe that paid homage to this precious liquid gold and make it the star, rather than a mere supporting player. My first thought was immediate and swift, a milk and honey custard. They say trust your first instinct, and “they’ would be right, because I cannot think of anything more comfortingly lush than a perfectly executed crème caramel.
2 cups (16 oz/473 ml) whole milk
½ cup (170 grams) honey, preferably local wildflower
2 teaspoons fine quality Earl Grey tea leaves
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (227 grams) sugar
¼ cup water
How to use them:
Preheat your oven to 325°F/165°C. Heat water in a kettle and bring to a boil to use for the bain-marie, or water bath. Crème Caramel is not difficult to make, however, it is a matter of proper technique, and I hope to show you that here. As for the flavor of this custard, I decided on the naturally harmonious marriage of creamy milk, local wildflower honey and aromatic Earl Grey black tea kissed with the distinctive citrus notes of bergamot. Combine the milk, honey, tea, and salt in a medium saucepan and heat on medium-low heat.Stir the mixture until the honey is completely dissolved. Make sure that the mixture is warmed all the way through until it just reaches the boiling point, but do not allow to boil. This is the stage where you see steam beginning to rise and small bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat and set aside to allow the Earl Grey tea to thoroughly steep in the milk mixture. While the milk is steeping, let’s turn our attention to the caramel.
Caramelization is a method by which water is removed from the sugar by heating, thereby causing the disaccharide sucrose, granulated sugar, to break down into the monosaccharides fructose and glucose. This process is what allows the melted sugar to change color and develop the depth of flavors and aromas associated with caramelizing.
In a medium sauce pan, heat the sugar and water on medium-low heat, gently stirring just until the sugar is dissolved. After this initial stirring, you do not stir for the remainder of the process, you simply swirl the pan instead. You can see that when you first combine the sugar and water, it’s a quite a cloudy and murky white mixture as the sugar has not yet dissolved.As the temperature of the liquid increases and it begins to boil, you can slowly see the sugar dissolving.The water also begins to evaporate and the syrup starts to bubble up.Note, a technique that you can use to ensure that the sugar will not seize and crystallize is to use a pastry brush dipped in water to clean the sides of the pan throughout the caramelizing process.
As the water in the syrup begins to evaporate you will see clearer and larger bubbles forming.
Allow the sugar to boil without stirring until the syrup reaches a golden caramel color, usually 10-15 minutes. This caramelizing of the sugar is what happens to pure sugar when it melts and reaches 338° F. At this temperature, the sugar compounds begin to break down and new compounds form. I have taken several picture of the stages of the caramel so you can have a sense of the range of color that the caramel goes through and the color you want your perfect caramel to be.
Here you can begin to see a bit of color.Not only is the caramel color becoming more pronounced now, but as most of the water evaporates, the sound of the boiling becomes louder and more aggressive, and you begin to catch a hint of a smoky caramel aroma begin to rise.This deep golden color means you’re almost there. You must pay very close attention here, do not walk away for even a second!Now this, this is the color of perfection. Once you reach this deep amber color and the scent of caramel fills the air, immediately remove the pan from the heat……and pour the caramel into an 8 or 9 inch nonstick cake pan or glass pie plate. Quickly swirl the caramel around to evenly coat the bottom, and about half way up the sides of the pan.Finish making your custard by whisking the eggs in a large bowl until they are fully combined, about two minutes. Gently pour the warmed milk into the eggs, whisking constantly to avoid the curdling of the eggs. Once all of the milk is fully incorporated into the eggs, pour the custard through a fine sieve to capture the tea leaves and any bits of cooked eggs that may have formed.This ensures, a satiny smooth creamy custard. Set the pan you are using into a larger pan, such as the roasting pan I use here.Pour the custard into the caramel covered pan.
Set the roasting pan with the custard pan sitting in it, onto your baking rack in your oven and gently pour the hot water that you heated in the kettle into the larger pan, being extremely careful not to splash any water into your custard! Please DO NOT pour the hot water in first and then try to transport the pan to the oven! If you do it in the oven as I have done below, then you are not risking spilling boiling water on yourself.Bake the custard for 50-65 minutes, until it is set, but just slightly jiggly in the middle. Once the custard is baked through, remove the pan from the water and place it onto a cooling rack to cool completely. Then refrigerate the custard for at least 4 hours or overnight. When you are ready to serve your crème caramel, gently loosen the sides of custard with a paring knife if needed.
To serve, top the pan with a large plate, quickly flip it over and then lift the pan to reveal the luscious custard.Custard is pure bliss on its own, but it’s also delightful topped with seasonal local fresh fruit like I have done here with some farmer’s market spring berries to balance the richness of custard.For those that prefer a traditional vanilla Crème Caramel custard, follow the recipe above, except substitute the tea leaves with either the seeds from one vanilla pod, 2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract or 2 teaspoons of pure vanilla paste.
Here, the Vanilla Bean Crème Caramel is made in 8 individual ramekins by evenly swirling 1 tablespoon of caramel into the bottom and sides of each ramekin.Pour the custard about two-thirds of the way up the ramekin and bake in a bain-marie.
Cool the custards completely, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or preferably overnight. The longer the flavors marry, the more the flavor seems to just bloom.Prior to serving, gently loosen with paring knife.Turn the ramekin over onto the plate and lift it up to reveal a golden caramel enrobed custard, bespeckeled with lush fragrant vanilla bean seeds.The only thing left to do is simply close your eyes and partake.