I can hear you all going "HUH???" out there (or worse) (and yes, I'm talking to you, Susan) so I want to explain why I came up with this dessert.
My dad's birthday was last Friday, and he'd requested the main item for dinner, but left dessert entirely up to me. So I was thinking about all the things my father likes for dessert. Part of the list included things like squash pie, grapenut pudding, and, most recently, the eggnog flan I made around Christmas and New Year's. Hmmmm. The wheels began to turn.
First of all, each one is a custard in some form or another. So it wasn't all that difficult to imagine combining them. Actually, it sounded like a pretty yummy combination. And with that moment or two of consideration, I'd planned ONE of the two desserts I made. I'll share the other one in a different post.
The day before the dinner, I figured I'd make this dessert – my grapenut pudding + butternut squash (the last one left from our garden!) + flan concoction so it could chill overnight, so at some point in the morning on Thursday I sliced my lovely orange butternut squash in half and scraped the seeds out so I could roast it.
Anyway, once I realized (and came to terms with) the fact that my oven wasn't going to be in working condition until Friday, I had to switch gears somewhat.
At first, I thought, well, I'll just make them tomorrow and chill them down quickly.
No. Too much to try and do in too short a time frame.
Maybe I'll make a pudding, I mused. But I didn't want to make a pudding. I wanted to make a custard. Portioned out in individual servings. Fancy. Special.
Well, when making a flan, or a creme brulee, or anything like that, you cook it in a water bath, right? Slow heat. And, to some extent, moist heat.
So how could I recreate those conditions on TOP of the stove?
Well, I'll tell you how. But not just yet.
First, I had to cook the squash. I peeled it and chopped it up and cooked it in a pot of hot water, then I drained it and mashed it with some vanilla and pumpkin pie spice and set it aside.
After dinner, I got to work on the rest of the dessert.
First, I figured out HOW to set up my make-shift on-top-of-the-stove oven. That included figuring out how many ramekins I could use. Enough for everyone? Check.
With all my ramekins and cookware thus assembled, I turned to the food.
This recipe, by the way, was enough to fill 8 4-oz ramekins plus 7 6-oz ramekins.
First, I made my caramel.
I used 2 1/2 cups of sugar and roughly 14 tablespoons of water.
But I didn't do it all in one batch, because I hadn't planned well and didn't make enough the first time around. So I made my caramel in two rounds. No big deal.
I put the sugar in a pot on the stove, added water and stirred briefly with a fork just to make sure all the sugar was wet. After that – NO STIRRING. The sugar will crystalize, and you don't want that!
Then I quickly poured a little bit in each ramekin – enough to coat the bottom – and that part was done.
I'll say it right now – I was winging a lot of this. But here goes.
3 cups 1/2 & 1/2 (you could also use heavy cream)
2 1/2 cups milk (I had 2%)
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla
about 1 1/2 cups grapenuts cereal
cooked flesh from 1 small butternut squash, mashed with 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice and about 1 tsp vanilla, then cooled.
I might even use less cereal if I were to do this again. Or not.
Anyway, I combined the half & half and the milk in one large sauce pot, the eggs, yolks, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl, the grapenuts in a bowl, and the squash mixture in yet another bowl.
You'll also need a whisk and a large ladle…and a fine-mesh strainer.
Now, put the milk mixture on the stove and start heating that up over medium heat. You want to scald it, or bring it to just under a boil. Keep the big bowl with the egg mixture nearby, because you'll need that next.
While your dairy products are heating up, whisk your egg and sugar mixture well. It'll look kind of…well, gross, because the brown sugar and vanilla darken it, but trust me, it'll taste just fine.
Once your milk has begun to bubble around the edges of the pan, shut the heat off and begin ladling the hot milk verrrrrrrrrrrrrrry slowly into the egg mixture, whisking the eggs like a wild woman (or man) as the milk streams in. You are tempering the eggs – warming them slowly so they don't curdle and become scrambled. Scrambled is not desirable in this instance.
Keep whisking with one hand and slowwwwwwwwwwwwly pouring with the other, until you've got about half the milk incorporated into the eggs. At this point it's safe to ladle faster, and then once you've got all the milk mixed with the eggs, you need to pour the whole mixture through the strainer and back into the pot. Or into another large bowl. This will remove any solidified egg bits that might be in there.
I'd mashed the squash pretty well after I cooked it, but I still had very small lumps, and showed up in the final product. I think it would have looked better in the end if I'd pressed the whole squash mixture through the strainer. Or whisked it into the egg mixture and then put the whole thing through the strainer. Live and learn. I also think I was so focused on HOW I was going to be cooking the custards that I rushed through the preparation a bit, without doing all the thinking I could have done. Oh well.
Onto the next part.
I decided to pour some grapenuts in each ramekin. Originally I was going to just combine them with the custard and pour, but I thought this way I could guarantee a relatively equal proportion of custard to cereal in each serving.
Oh, and try not to make a mess as you ladle with one hand and take "action shots" with your camera in the other hand.
Well, see that very large pot off to the rear left in the image above? I cooked the custards in that.
It's a huge dutch oven that I use just a few times a year – for roast beef at Christmas (apparently I never write a post for that meal), or for a turkey if I'm hosting Thanksgiving, and maybe for a leg of lamb. Or a really huge vat of pea soup if I've got an enormous ham bone to use. It's made by VillaWare, and I don't know if they're availalbe any more – the VillaWare site didn't have them. But if you can find one, get one.
Anyway, here's what I did. I wanted to have water in the dutch oven to create the moist heat and the slow cooking environment that I wanted for my custards. I didn't want any ramekins sitting directly on the bottom of the oven, though, because then they'd be right on top of the flames, sort of.
So I put a thin dish towel down (so the non-stick surface wouldn't get scratched) and then two small cooling racks. And then I poured in some water – about an inch deep's worth. I didn't measure. While I was preparing the custard, I fired up two burners (under the dutch oven) and brought the water to a boil.
Then I put some of my ramekins in, spacing them carefully so there was at least half an inch of space between them. I think I got 7 on the bottom, mostly the larger ones. Then I put two more small round cooling racks on top of the ramekins and very carefully placed the remaining 8 ramekins on those racks.
And then I slapped the lid on and turned the heat down (both burners) so the water (I hoped) would be at a simmer.
I set the timer for 30 minutes.
And when the timer went off, I took a VERY quick peek (didn't want to lose all the heat inside) and saw that there was still a LOT of jiggle left in each ramekin, so I put the lid back on and cooked for another 40 minutes.
In retrospect, I should have checked again after 20-25 more minutes, because I think I cooked them a bit longer than necessary. It was an interesting experience. I'd check the pot every now and then by listening for a bubbling sound, and if I heard that, then I'd nudge the temperature down a bit.
Now, of course, if I was Alton Brown, I'd have used my remote thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of the dutch oven. But I'm not him, and I never even thought of it. We have a remote thermometer – Bill uses it when he's grilling sometimes – but it just didn't occur to me to dig it out.
Anyway, for whatever dang fool reason I had that night, I cooked those custards a total of an hour and ten minutes. I probably didn't want to have to open the pot again until I was sure they were done. Who knows.
Anyway, after the timer went off a second time, I took the lid off (oh, and when you're doing this, tilt the lid a bit as you lift it, so the condensation on the inner part of the lid will drip down the SIDE of the pan and not all over your custards) and here's what I saw:
All wet and shiny…some got dripped on by the lid, but maybe I had too much water in the pot to begin with. And those bits of orange – the squash bits. Not all that attractive, in my opinion. And a lot of the custards puffed up! You can see that in the front row here. They puffed up! What the heck?
Honestly? I figured they were ruined. I really did. I thought I'd screwed them up completely. Bill thought so, too. "Just toss them," he said. And I almost agreed with that. But. I'd spent ALL this time and effort (and ingredients) to make them. I had to at least let them cool and maybe dig into one (I made more than I'd need) to see what they looked like inside.
So I started taking them out as carefully as I could, given that they were hot and awkward to get ahold of. I used a very flexible potholder, and even thought it might have messed up the surface, I reminded myself that they were to be inverted and unmolded, so it didn't matter – the bottom would become the top.
Once I got the top layer out of there, I removed the two cooling racks and pulled out the ramekins below. Again, several of the custards had puffed way up, with this as the result:
Oh, and speaking of pretty, here's what the interior of the dutch oven looked like after this little project:
While I was taking them out, I dropped one ramekin into another. I decided that I was meant to eat that ruined custard, so I unmolded it and dug in – carefully, as it was still very hot.
And you know…ugly though it was, it tasted really, really good. Pumpkin pie flavored grapenut pudding with some caramelly syrup drizzled on top. Very good indeed.
I let the rest of the custards cool a bit and then layered them inside the fridge.
And then I went to bed.
The next morning, the puffiness was gone; the custards had deflated a bit and looked like they'd have looked if I cooked them inside my oven.
Now, fast-forward to Friday night, when everyone has gathered for my dad's birthday. Dinner is over, and everyone is stuffed, but hopefully they've saved a tiny bit of stomach space for the desserts.
I took one of the larger ramekins, sat it in hot water to soften it up around the bottom first, and then ran a paring knife around the sides.
That's when I hit a snag. The grapenuts had absorbed a lot of the liquid caramel, and the liquid caramel is what allows you to unmold a flan so easily. I ran the knife around the edge of the flan again, tipped the ramekin over the plate, shook it a bit, and still, nothing.
So I switched gears, stuck a candle in the top of the custard, lit the flame, and we sang "Happy Birthday" as scheduled.
I didn't bother trying to unmold any of the others – I didn't want to waste the time at that point.
When I served the first ramekin o' custard to my dad, I told him what it was and why it was. And, bottom line, he liked it.
Yay. That's all that I cared about. I brought out the rest of the ramekins and told everyone to help themselves while I got the OTHER dessert out of the oven. That's a whole separate bit of entertainment for another day, but I will definitely share it, as it has a moral and everything. You can read it to your children at bedtime.
Oh – funny moment – Alex is not a fan of custardy things, but he DOES like pumpkin or squash pie, so there was a fifty-fifty chance he'd like my creation. Game little boy that he is, he tried it. And after a couple of bites he looked at me regretfully (and with a bit of revulsion) and said "I tried it, Mom, but I really don't like it." And that was perfectly fine, because I knew he WOULD like the other dessert. And he did.
Now, my nephew, Calvin, hadn't tried the grapenut butternut flan yet – he was more interested in the second dessert. So after he ate that one, he contemplated trying the custard. We all talked him into just trying it, and if he didn't like it, no big deal.
I said "we all" but that's not accurate. There was Alex, the lone voice of dissent. "Don't try it, Calvin. You won't like it. It's not good. DON'T EAT IT! No, really, you won't like it."
I laughed and laughed. When Alex likes something, he cannot sing enough praises. And when he doesn't like something? He sings just as fervently against it. He cracks me up.
Calvin didn't really like it, either. But I didn't care.
I sent my parents home with a couple of the larger ramekins and that left a few for us.
The next day, I took another stab at unmolding one, and, amazingly, it went perfectly.
And I could take pictures like this –
Or, at the least, to marvel at my triumph in the face of adversity and my Ms. McGyver-like ingenuity.
Or something like that.