We ushered in the year of the horse with our usual Chinese New Year dinner. This year’s celebration was considerably smaller than previous years in the number of guests but not in the number of courses. For the conclusion of our meal, I like to take a non traditional approach with dessert, incorporating Chinese flavors into dishes familiar to Western palates.
In my readings I have learned that the Chinese do not usually have desserts at the end of a typical meal, opting for fresh fruit if anything at all. Sweets are often enough enjoyed at tea time, often sweetened and candied fruits made into sweet soups and cakes. Exotic Chinese desserts for special occasions like birds nest soup double boiled in coconut milk or glutinous rice and wheat soup would be a bit esoteric and even too sweet for Western palates. So I like to keep it simple, spicy ginger cookies in the shape of the celebrated animal of the year, ice cream and sorbets featuring everything from red beans to tangerines.
This year I decided on a rich and satisfying green tea crème brûlée. Crème brûlée, translated “burnt cream” is a rich custard topped with a layer of caramelized sugar. A custard is a combination of eggs or egg yolks and milk or cream baked gently until it sets. Sweet custards, crème brûlée or crème caramel, custard based ice creams and pots de creme contain sugar. Custards can be savory as well, like quiches, that combine cream or milk and eggs with cheese.
Crème brûlée can be baked in small individual dishes or in one low sided round or oval dish. A large surface area is desirable to maximize the caramelized sugar crunch that contrasts so well with the creamy custard underneath. The basic custard can be a blank canvas to showcase other flavors. Typically the custard is flavored with a vanilla bean but to give it an Eastern flair I infused it with green tea as well. I chose a gunpowder green that imparts a slightly smoky flavor. Infusing tea bags in warmed cream for about a half hour gave me the flavor I was looking for.
Crème brûlée is baked in a bain marie or water bath. The custards are placed in a larger pan that is filled halfway up the sides of the dish or dishes with very hot tap water. This protects the crème brûlée from the direct heat of the oven. A tea towel in the bottom of the pan gives more stability and individual ramekins are less likely to dance around. Since oven heat can be notoriously inconsistent from one area to the next, the bain marie helps distribute the heat more evenly so that each custard cooks at the same rate.
Clear a generous spot on your countertop right next to the oven with potholders at the ready. It can be quite a feat removing the baking pan half filled with water and the custards. When the crème brûlée is done it should be removed immediately from the bain marie, a good pair of tongs make this easy, place on a wire rack and cooled for about a half hour at room temperature and refrigerated, preferably overnight. Covered with plastic wrap they can sit in your refrigerator for several days, a bonus to the busy cook.
When you are ready to serve the dessert, prepare the sugar glaze. I prefer turbinado or Demerara sugar to sprinkle on the crème brûlée. They are both minimally refined sugars and their large crystals are easier to spread and give it an extra crunch. Sprinkle a light layer of sugar evenly over the top. We started originally with the smaller propane torch sold in kitchen stores but have found the larger propane torch does the job in a lot less time. Place the finished desserts back in the refrigerator to chill for about a half hour.
The Chinese believe that dietary balance is achieved through moderation. One should leave the table satisfied, not satiated. Green tea creme brulee is a dessert that does this quite nicely.
Green Tea Crème Brûlée
- 4 c heavy cream, chilled
- 2/3 c granulated sugar
- pinch table salt
- 10 tea bags- I used Numi Gunpowder Green
- 12 large egg yolks
- 1t vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 8 – 12 teaspoons turbinado sugar or Demerara sugar
- Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300° F.
- Combine 2 cups cream, sugar, and salt in medium saucepan; add tea bags and bring mixture to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that sugar dissolves. Take pan off heat and let steep 30 minutes to infuse flavors.
- While the tea bags are steeping, place kitchen towel in bottom of large baking dish or roasting pan and arrange eight 4- to 5-ounce ramekins (or shallow fluted dishes) on towel.
- After cream has steeped, remove tea bags and squeeze bags with tongs or press into mesh strainer to extract all liquid. Stir tea liquid and remaining 2 cups cream into steeped cream to cool down mixture. Whisk yolks and vanilla extract in large bowl until broken up and combined. Whisk about 1 cup cream mixture into yolks until loosened and combined; repeat with another 1 cup cream. Add remaining cream and whisk until evenly colored and thoroughly combined. Strain through fine-mesh strainer into 2-quart measuring cup, discard solids in strainer. Pour or ladle mixture into ramekins, dividing it evenly among them.
- Carefully place baking dish with ramekins on oven rack; pour very hot tap water into dish, taking care not to splash water into ramekins, until water reaches halfway up the height of ramekins. Bake until centers of custards are just barely set and are no longer sloshy and digital instant-read thermometer inserted in centers registers 170°F to 175°F degrees, 30 to 35 minutes (25 to 30 minutes for shallow fluted dishes). Begin checking temperature about 5 minutes before recommended time.
- Transfer ramekins to wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Set ramekins on rimmed baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.
- Uncover ramekins; if condensation has collected on custards, place paper towel on surface to soak up moisture. Sprinkle each with about 1 teaspoon turbinado sugar (1 1/2 teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap ramekin for even coverage. Ignite torch and caramelize sugar. Refrigerate ramekins, uncovered, to re-chill, 30 to 45 minutes (but no longer); serve.