Butterscotch Pots de Crème

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I like to call them, "Deconstructed Margot Tenenbaums. " 

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What other flavor could be as complex and well-matched to the enduring internal battles of the adopted daughter of Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum? Real butterscotch, unlike that from a JELL-O box, has an acute duskiness from the almost burnt sugar, which matches Margot's sullen, but fiercely independent and deliberate persona.

Luckily, I was dead set on making these little pots of custard because sorting out the recipe was a bit of a headache. Several seemingly contradictory methods persist online, and even when I finally narrowed it down to a recipe from Gjelina's Travis Lett, multiple variations appeared all over the Internet.

Finally deciding to pull the trigger, however, was freeing—not unlike Margot finally owning up to her 22-year-long smoking habit and her romantic love for her adoptive brother, Richie. After all, what could possibly go wrong when mixing brown sugar with cream, eggs, and vanilla bean and topping it all with whipped crème fraîche, caramel, and sea salt? Not that much, it turns out. In fact, the result is a deliberate, complex, moody pudding that will have you pondering butterscotch in a whole new light.

You may also feel as though you should "receive a Braverman Grant of $50,000 in the ninth grade" for having created such a confection. Deservedly so, I'd say.

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The recipe printed below is the solution I arrived at after carefully examining the versions of the Gjelina recipe printed in Food & Wine and The Los Angeles Times, and I think it's a worthy compromise. Perhaps it's meant to be a loose custard, but I had to increase the baking time to achieve the consistency I was after. This may also be due to the fact that I crowded my ramekins in the bain-marie. So check yours after an hour—if they're not set, feel free to continue baking them for another half hour. I did, and I have no regrets.


Butterscotch Pots de Crème
Adapted from Travis Lett of Gjelina
Makes 4 individual servings

Ingredients
6 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
3 large egg yolks
Boiling water

Caramel Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp water
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup cream
Whipped crème fraîche, for serving
Maldon sea salt, for serving

Method
Preheat the oven to 325°. In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the brown sugar and cook over moderately high heat, whisking constantly, until smooth and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in the cream. Return the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Add the salt and vanilla seeds.

In a large heatproof bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Gradually whisk in the hot cream mixture. Strain the custard into four 6-ounce ramekins. Set the ramekins in a small roasting pan and place it in the middle of the oven. Fill the roasting pan with enough boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake for 90 minutes, until the custards are set but still jiggle slightly when tapped. Transfer the ramekins to a baking sheet and refrigerate until chilled, 4 hours.

While the custards are baking, make the caramel: In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine sugar with the water. Heat over medium heat until the sugar turns a deep amber (dark, reddish brown) color and is fragrantly nutty, about 5 minutes. Add the butter and stir until it melts and is thoroughly incorporated. Gradually stir in the cream until incorporated; remove from heat and set aside.

Top the pots de crème with the caramel sauce and whipped crème fraîche, sprinkle with Maldon sea salt and serve.

Dark Chocolate Sambuca Cookies

I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. There was no tree and no Santa, and I never thought twice about it. Not wanting to commercialize religion was something that I could get behind, even as a kid. The one obvious flaw I could find in this whole plan, however, was the apparent lack of joyous holiday traditions: caroling, decorating, Christmas baking. Especially Christmas baking.

Fortunately, my parents weren't averse to finding ways to occupy the calendar holiday, and food was a popular way to observe December 25. To this day, I'm a bit puzzled by many holiday customs and protocols, but the annual exchange of baked goods is something I look forward to with a good amount of genuine Christmas cheer. This year, these cookies were my very satisfactory attempt to celebrate the season.

I agree with most holiday bakers that Christmas treats beg to be full of spice. That concession, however, is where I bid adeiu to the bulk of holiday cookie trays in the American Midwest. Something intensely chocolate is too often missing, and I do think spice can come from ingredients beyond a dusty bottle of dried ginger.

Here, licorace-ey sambuca provides a hint of the exotic and pays homage to the traditional Anisette cookies the Italians make this time of year. The sambuca, combined with dark cocoa, yields a tender little shortbread that's an absolute winner with a glass of milk or a cup of tea.

The recipe is freely adapted from Nigella's double chocolate Christmas cookies. Her recipe is great as written, but I've cut down on the sugar, added salt, subbed Dutch cocoa for regular, and infused both the cookie and the icing with the fragrance of sambuca to create a very grown-up chocolate biscuit.


Dark Chocolate Sambuca Cookies
Adapted from Nigella Lawson
Makes 26 cookies

Ingredients

2 1/4 sticks softened unsalted butter

1/2 cup sugar

3 tbsp sambuca

1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of kosher salt

For the icing

3 tbsp cocoa powder

1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/4 boiling water

1 teaspoon sambuca

nonpareils

Method

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. When you have a soft, whipped mixture, beat in sambuca and cocoa powder, followed by the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and pinch of salt.

Roll dough into 1 tbsp-sized balls and slightly flatten them as you place them on your cookie sheet.

Bake each batch for 15 minutes and not a minute longer. Cookies will continue to cook as they cool.

To make the icing, combine cocoa powder, confectioners' sugar, boiling water, and sambuca in a small saucepan. Whisk over low heat until smoothly combined and remove from heat for 10 minutes before icing cooled cookies.

Dribble cookies with chocolate glaze six at a time, using the back of a spoon to spread. Once you've iced six, sprinkle with nonpareils and repeat with remaining cookies.

Store cookies on a plate for up to one day. If there are any left after 24 hours, transfer to a container. It's possible these cookies taste even better the second day, as the glaze has settled into the cookie.