Caramel Crème Brûlée

Creme Brulee

Crème brûlée and crème caramel — the two are easily confused.  Especially if you take the best part of crème caramel, the caramel, and infuse it in your crème brûlée.

Just to set the record straight, crème caramel is the light custard that’s served inverted onto a plate, caramel base up, with the golden syrup pooling dramatically at the base.

Crème brûlée is crème caramel’s richer cousin, made with cream rather than milk.  It’s dusted with sugar and torched, or brûléed, with sugar to create its distinctive glass-like topping.

The best part of crème brûlée is you can make it days in advance and there’s no fancy plating to worry about.  Simply take them out of the fridge and allow each guest the pleasure of dusting their custard with sugar and torching it.  Children and tispy guests excluded.

One of my favourite kitchen tools is a push-button starter for my burly blow torch, given to me by a student, an electrician.  It accompanies my crème brûlée to the table no matter how fancy the occasion. 

The custard is adapted from Julia Child’s crème brûlée recipe, a modified creme anglaise, found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Originally published in  EAT Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2012 issue.

Serves 10

  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1 fresh vanilla pod
  • ½ cup white sugar, plus additional sugar for torching
  • water
  • 8 large egg yolks

Caramel – Photo by Caroline West

You’ll want to get your equipment organized before you start. You’ll need 10 ramekins and a baking dish, or dishes, large enough to accommodate them.  You’ll also need a sieve placed atop a container (pictured below),  parchment paper, or tinfoil, a kettle for boiling water and finally, a blowtorch.

This is an easy recipe but it helps to read the recipe though to the end before you start.  Like you always do.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Line a large baking dish with small dish-towels or non-stick drawer liners.  This helps insulate and hold the ramekins in place while you transport them to and from the oven.

Pour the cream into a saucepan.

Split the vanilla pod in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Remove the tiny seeds from each side of the pod with the tip of the knife, and add them to the cream.   (Do not discard the split halves of the vanilla pods.  Instead, place them in a container with sugar and infuse with authentic flavour.)

Heat the cream and vanilla mixture until it just begins to boil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Adding warm cream to the caramel – Photo by Caroline West

In a LARGE saucepan (trust me on this), add the sugar and just enough water to moisten the sugar. Cook the sugar on medium-high heat until it melts and turns a light amber color, approximately 7 to 10 minutes. Once the sugar starts changing colour you must be attentive –  the sugar can turn into smoking black mess in a heartbeat.
Slowly stir the warm cream mixture into the hot, melted sugar. The melted sugar will bubble madly.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with a small amount of the hot caramel cream. Add the rest of the cream in a slow stream, whisking until combined. Do not rush this process or you run the risk of scrambling the eggs.
Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a one-litre spouted container (pictured), for easy pouring.

Bring a kettle of water to a boil.

Place the ramekins on the lined baking dish and move to a counter space that is close to the stove. Pour the custard into the ramekins, filling close to the top. Add the boiling water to the baking dish, being careful not to pour water into the custard.  The water should come half way up the sides of the ramekins.  Poke a couple of holes into a sheet of tin foil or parchment and  loosely cover the baking dish. Carefully transfer the baking dish into the oven.

Straining the custard – Photo by Caroline West

Baking time will depend on the size of your ramekins and your oven’s temperament.  Plan on about 25 minutes for small or shallow ramekins and about 45 minutes for larger containers.  The custards should be removed from the oven when they’re barely set — with the centers ever-so-slightly wobbly. It’s best to check the custards after 20 minutes to gauge the timing.

Refrigerate the custards until completely cool, at least three hours. (They can also be refrigerated up to three days in advance).

Just before serving, generously dust each custard with white sugar.  Tilt the ramekin from side to side to disperse the sugar. Using the blowtorch, carefully burn (brûlée) the sugar with the flame until the top of each custard is nicely browned.

custard ready for the oven – Photo by Caroline West

Duck Confit

Duck Confit

Duck confit is a moist and intensely flavoured meat; tastier than chicken but not at all gamey. The skin crisps up beautifully, sort of like bacon, only better.

Confit is made by slowly poaching seasoned duck legs in duck fat (yes, duck fat) until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender.

While this may sound about as healthy as a bowl of poutine, duck fat is actually one of the healthier fats  — it’s high in cholesterol-fighting monounsaturated fat.

You can pick up duck fat at your local butcher. If they don’t sell it, they’ll likely know someone who does. Use it as you would cooking oil — potatoes fried or roasted in duck fat are sensational.

Duck confit has more uses than you might imagine: you can serve it with lentils, as pictured, or shred the meat and tuck it into sweet peppers or ravioli, wrap it in a tortilla with pickled vegetables, mix it with white beans and roasted garlic, purée it into a fine pâté with pepper and cognac, or toss it in a salad, crispy skin and all.

Properly stored, duck confit lasts a month in the refrigerator.  As if you need more reason to give it a try.


Duck Fat and Seasoned Duck

The last time I checked, Slaters First Class Meats in Victoria and Oyama Sausage Company in Vancouver, offered duck fat.

This recipe is adapted from Michael Rulman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

Originally published in Eat Magazine British Columbia Jan/Feb 2011

Duck Confit

¼ cup kosher salt
1 ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 large shallots , finely sliced
2 tablespoons fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
4 sprigs fresh thyme
6 duck legs/thighs, preferably Brome Lake Ducks
Approx. 5 cups duck fat

Combine the salt with the pepper, garlic, shallots, fennel, parsley and thyme.  Sprinkle half of the mixture on the bottom of a dish large enough to hold the duck pieces in a single layer.   Place the duck on top of the salt mixture and then sprinkle with the remaining salt.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours.

Heat the oven to 240F.  Melt the duck fat in a saucepan over medium low heat.

Remove the duck from the salt, rinse thoroughly and pat completely dry with paper towels. Arrange the duck pieces in a single snug layer in a wide, shallow, oven-safe saucepan, casserole or baking dish.  Pour the melted fat over the duck.  The duck pieces must be completely covered by fat.

Transfer the duck to the oven and gently simmer, uncovered, until the duck is tender and can be easily pulled from the bone, approximately 2 to 3 hours.  Check the oven occasionally to make sure the fat is gently simmering; confit can become tough if the oven is too hot.  Adjust the heat as required to achieve a very gentle simmer.

Store the duck in the fat in the refrigerator for up to one month.  Excess duck fat can be strained and stored in the refrigerator for later use.

When ready to use, brown the duck pieces, skin side down in a frying pan to crisp the skin. Then transfer to a low oven until heated through, approximately 15 minutes at 325 F.


Classic French Omelette

Classic French Omelette

Few foods transcend all seasons like a French omelet. No matter the weather or mood, omelets are somehow reassuring.

More technique than a recipe, a classic French omelet is different from your sturdy, stuffed with “the works” omelet.  I enjoy both but when I’m in the mood for something delicate, I’ll opt for the lighter classic version with its soft and creamy interior.

Describing how to make an omelet is like explaining how to swim; you need to jump-in to understand the process.

It’s not difficult but it requires a bit of dexterity: once the eggs hit the pan, you grab the skillet handle with one hand and shake the pan to-and-fro while scrambling the eggs with the other. Sort of like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. This quirky technique prevents the eggs from forming curds. The result is a remarkably tender omelet — in under a minute.

With patience, practice and a decent non-stick pan, you’ll be on your way, no matter the season.

7 – 8” non-stick saucepan or skillet with shallow sloping sides
3 large eggs, preferably organic
1 tsp each butter and vegetable oil
Kosher salt
1 Tbsp finely chopped mixed herbs such as parsley, tarragon and chives

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add the butter and oil.

While the pan is heating, whisk the eggs and herbs in a small bowl and season with a pinch of kosher salt.

Pour the eggs into the hot pan and stir continuously as if scrambling eggs, while grabbing the pan’s handle with your free hand to shake the pan to and fro. When the eggs are almost set, remove the pan from the heat and smooth them with a spatula.  Run the spatula around all sides of the omelet to loosen it from the pan.  Tip the omelet to slide the eggs to one side of the pan then using a spatula, gently fold one-third of the omelet onto itself.  Then, holding the pan over a plate, slide and roll the omelet onto the plate so that it lands with the seam side down.

Brush with butter and serve immediately.



14 Layer Birthday Cake

14 Layer Birthday Cake

When my twin daughters turned three, I baked them a very special three layer cake, one layer for each precious year. This year’s birthday cake has 14 layers, one layer for each wonderful, tumultuous, year.

I love traditions, no matter how precarious.

This is my take on the classic French Opera cake, traditionally made with three sponge layers moistened with syrup and  sandwiched between chocolate ganache and coffee flavoured buttercream.  In a Parisian pastry shop, an opera cake is a squat, rectangle brick shape, glazed with chocolate, often with the word, ”opera,” piped in meticulous chocolate script.

My cake looks nothing like a brick but the taste is undeniably French patisserie. The sides are decorated with toasted coconut and the top frosted with buttercream and dark chocolate flowers I discovered at my local Bernard Callebaut Chocolaterie.

The recipe below is for a four layer cake, 8″ diameter.  Double, triple or quadruple the recipe at your own peril.

You can prepare and freeze the individual sponge layers well in advance. Buttercream and ganache can be prepared days in advance, refrigerated, but you’ll need to allow them to warm to a spreadable consistency before using.

You’ll need a few kitchen tools:

  • A kitchen scale to weigh the ingredients.  If you’re going through this much trouble, you’ll want to get it right and measuring cups are not accurate enough for this sort of project;
  • Two baking sheets lined with parchment and lightly smeared with firm (cold) butter. Do not use a non-stick baking liner, such as Silpat.  The cake tends to stick to silicone;
  • A cake ring, or similar mold, to trace and cut the baked cake from the baking sheet;
  • An electric stand-up mixer  (or a balloon whisk, a muscular arm and steely determination);
  • An offset palette knife to spread the buttercream and ganache;
  • A candy thermometer for the buttercream.

If you’re still with me, take heart.  Although there are several steps to this recipe, each step is straightforward and can be prepared in stages.

Some assembly required.

Almond Sponge Cake

The ingredients should be weighed, eggs separated and butter melted before you start.

50 grams cold butter to grease the parchment lined baking trays

210 grams icing sugar
210 grams of almond powder (ground almonds)
6 large whole eggs, room temperature
6 egg whites, room temperature
pinch of cream of tartar
60 grams of white sugar
60 grams of all purpose flour
45 grams of melted butter

Preheat oven to 360 F

Line two baking trays with parchment and smear lightly with cold butter. (Dragging the butter along the parchment provides the most even coverage.)

In a large bowl, combine the icing sugar with the almond powder and mix well. Add the whole eggs and mix well to combine thoroughly. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand-up mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the eggs whites and a pinch (about 1/8 teaspoon) of cream of tartar and whisk at medium speed until frothy.  Slowly add the sugar, gradually increasing the speed to high until the egg whites have billowed into stiff white peaks.

Using a large spatula, gently fold about a quarter of the egg whites into the batter. Then, fold in the flour.

Pour the melted butter into a small bowl and add about 1/2 cup of the batter and mix well.  (This tempers the butter.)  Return this to the rest of the batter.

Gently fold in the balance of egg whites, in three batches.

Divide in half and spread the batter onto the two prepared baking trays.

Bake approximately 10 to 12 minutes until golden, rotating the pans to ensure even cooking.  The cakes are done when the cake springs back when gently poked with a finger.

Using a cake ring (or other suitable mold) and a paring knife, trace and cut two cake rounds from each sheet pan. Lift the cake layers, along with the parchment base, onto a cake rack to cool.  Slowly peel off the parchment, being mindful not to tear the cake.

Save the cake trim in the fridge or freezer. See Creative Leftovers at the end of the recipe.


1 cup sugar
1 cup water
about 1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon instant coffee crystals

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a simmer, just until the sugar dissolves.  Add just enough coffee crystals to give the syrup a light, not harsh, coffee flavour.

(The syrup will be brushed on each cake layer, just before the cake is assembled.)

Coffee Buttercream

360 grams butter at room temperature
6 egg yolks
180 grams sugar
85 grams water

coffee extract*

Whisk the butter until soft and creamy and set aside.

Whisk the yolks with an electric mixer until light and fluffy and their volume has increased.

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and heat the syrup just until it reaches 121 degrees F (soft ball stage).  Immediately pour the hot sugar mixture into the beaten egg yolks, continuously whisking at medium-high speed while you do so.  Continue whisking until mixing bowl has cooled.

Add the softened butter and mix until well incorporated.

Add the coffee extract, a few drops at a time until you’re satisfied with the taste.

The buttercream can be used immediately or covered and placed in the fridge for up to three days until ready to use. The buttercream will firm in the fridge; you will need to let it warm it to a spreadable (room-temperature) consistency before using.

* To make your own coffee extract, pour about a quarter cup of instant coffee crystals into a small bowl and fill with just enough hot water to make a concentrated paste.  Strain the mixture and store in a clean jar.

Chocolate Ganache

125 grams good quality dark chocolate, cut in small pieces (I prefer 60% cocoa)
150 mls of 35% (whipping) cream

Place the chocolate into a medium-sized bowl.

Heat the cream in a small saucepan until it just starts to simmer.  Remove the cream from the heat and pour it over the chocolate.  Stir the mixture with a spoon until the mixture is smooth and well combined.  The ganache can be covered and refrigerated for up to three days.  It will firm in the fridge; you will need to warm it to a spreadable (room-temperature) consistency before using.

Cake Assembly

When all the cake components have been prepared, assemble as follows:

Dip a pastry brush in the coffee syrup and moisten each sponge layer with the syrup.  Spread a layer of chocolate ganache, about 1/8″ thick, on the sponge cake, followed by a layer of buttercream, about 1/4″ thick.

(The more cake layers you use, the less buttercream, per layer.  My 14-layer cake has about equal amounts of buttercream and ganache.)

Repeat with remaining layers, finishing with either buttercream or chocolate ganache.

If desired, decorate the cake’s sides with buttercream, ganache or toasted coconut.

Expect a mess!

Creative Leftovers

When cakes are cut into shapes, like this one, there will be leftover cake scraps.  There’s usually leftover ganache and buttercream, too.

A pastry chef friend passed along her best tip for using up cake odds and ends:

Place the cake scraps in a food processor and process until fine crumbs. Turn the crumbs into a bowl and mix with leftover buttercream and/or ganache until a soft paste is formed.  Using the palms of your hands, roll the paste into small truffle-sized confections, then roll them in chopped nuts and/or toasted coconut. They freeze beautifully and they’re an ideal treat with coffee or tea.

Spicy Potato Croquettes

Spicy Potato Croquettes

Potato croquettes are something you make with leftover mashed potatoes, except when your child requests them for her birthday dinner, in which case you skip the plain mashed and move directly to croquettes.

This recipe combines mashed potatoes with freshly grated ginger and garlic and toasted Indian spices.  Next time I might use olives, anchovies and dried tomatoes — or diced mushrooms and ham.  It doesn’t really matter.

Potatoes pair happily with everything.  Especially children.

Recipe originally published in Eat Magazine Sept/Oct 2012.

Makes about 18 croquettes, 4” x ¾”

2 pounds of Russet potatoes, about 3 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
¼ cup butter
2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger ~ a microplane grater works best
½ teaspoon finely grated fresh garlic ~ a microplane grater works best
1 finely chopped Serrano pepper, seeds removed ~ add more or less to taste
½ teaspoon turmeric

For the breading:
2/3 cup flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or regular breadcrumbs
vegetable oil for frying
kosher salt

Place the potatoes in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover the potatoes by one inch. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce and simmer, uncovered, until the potatoes are tender when tested with a knife.

While the potatoes are cooking, toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a small dry skillet just until fragrant. When they have cooled, grind them together using a mortar and pestle or a spice blender.

Drain the water from the potatoes. Mash the potatoes in a large bowl, using a ricer, food mill, potato masher or fork. (A ricer or food mill yields the smoothest texture.)

Add to the potatoes the ground spices, butter, salt, lemon juice, ginger, garlic, pepper and turmeric and blend until well combined. Taste to adjust seasoning, adding more pepper, lemon or salt if desired.

Scoop about 3 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) of the potato mixture onto your work surface and gently roll the mixture into a 4” log with the palm of your hand.  Trim the edges and place on a parchment (or wax paper) lined baking tray.  Repeat with the remaining mixture, being careful to roll logs into even sized shapes. Refrigerate the potatoes about half an hour — this will firm up the potatoes and make them easier to coat.

In three shallow bowls (glass pie plates work well) use one each for the flour, beaten eggs and Panko (or breadcrumbs).

Remove the potato logs from the refrigerator and, one at a time, dredge each log into the flour, then roll it in the beaten eggs, and then roll it in the Panko (or breadcrumbs). Once the breading is completed, the logs can be held in the refrigerator for up to a day before shallow frying.

Fill a medium-sized cast iron or heavy duty skillet with enough oil to cover the croquettes half way with oil. Heat the oil until an instant-read thermometer reaches 350 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, test the oil by adding a small cube of bread: if the bread sizzles and turns golden in about a minute, the oil is ready. Carefully add the croquettes to the oil, one at a time, being careful not to crowd the pan. Rotate the croquettes with tongs or a fork, making sure all sides are golden. Drain the croquettes on a baking rack covered with a paper towel and sprinkle immediately with salt. Place the croquettes in a warm oven while you continue cooking the remaining croquettes.

Serve immediately.