Last week, my kitchen contractor set up my shiny new Kitchenaid double-oven range. I had big plans to christen the oven with an epic triple layer red velvet cake made from scratch, but decided to play it safe and stick with a tried-and-true recipe: the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipe for vanilla cupcakes with buttercream frosting. A few years ago, at the very beginning of this blog, I'd once spent months baking this recipe over and over for a good two weeks in my attempt to figure out how to bake in high-altitude. It was the kind of recipe I knew like the back of my hand, one I could recite in my sleep.
That Saturday afternoon, as I prepared to bake the cupcakes, there were plenty of things already amiss before I even turned on the oven. It was a hot, hot, hot day — the butter I'd left out only a half hour ago to soften was now only barely solid, slowly melting to create a yellow puddle on my brand new kitchen countertops. I couldn't find any of my regular mixing bowls, spatulas and measuring spoons as I'd packed them away almost two months ago and promptly forgotten where I'd placed everything. I didn't have enough powdered sugar, and I had just realized my baking powder had expired three months ago.
But I wasn't going to let any of these things stop me, nope. I was going to bake these damn cupcakes. It had been way too long until I had baked something in my kitchen, in my oven.
Needless to say, it was a disaster.
With the expired baking powder, the cupcakes didn't rise and produce their usual beautifully domed tops. It also turns out that the top oven of my brand new range (yep the one with the double oven that I was so, so, so excited about) ran about 25 degrees too cold (if you don't have an oven thermometer, I highly suggest investing in one — it's the best way to learn about a new or current oven's quirks) and created underbaked, overly pale cupcakes that looked like they needed 10 or 15 more minutes in the oven. And with no powdered sugar on hand, I couldn't even make any frosting to hide the cupcakes' sad appearance.
Looking at the failed cupcakes made me upset. I couldn't let my first day of baking in the new kitchen (the one I'd spent so much time and money on!) with a failure. I began to rip open boxes to see what ingredients I could scrounge. I mean, I guess I'd purchased some fresh raspberries and pistachios earlier that morning to eat as breakfast to eat before my half-marathon training runs, but this was an emergency. And sure enough, combined with the bar of unsweetened chocolate and a half-crystalized jar of blackberry honey that I managed to dig up, I managed to pull together a pretty decent, classic dessert — chocolate pots de crème:
A pot de crème is a French custard dating back to the 17th century. It's similar to a pudding, but with a smoother, silkier texture since it's baked in the oven and uses a crap-ton of egg yolks (unlike puddings, which are often cooked on the stovetop and thickened with cornstarch). Combined with fresh, seasonal berries and flowers from the garden, these pots de crème quickly became the appropriate "first-recipe" that my kitchen deserved: beautiful, seasonal and delicious.
Some baker's notes:
- I used 100% cacao chocolate because this is the bar that I had available; feel free to substitute with any other dark chocolate that's 70% cacao or more. There's quite a bit of extra sugar and honey from the fruit, nuts and whipped cream, so anything less than 70% cacao might be too sweet.
- It's important that you cook the custard ramekins in the water bath (as instructed in the recipe). This will allow the custards to cook evenly throughout, but please do NOT overcook the custard. Overcooking will result in a weirdly crumbly and grainy custard texture and me crying tears of sadness for you. If you know your oven runs hot, constantly check your ramekins to see how done they are. Custards, unlike cake, are unaffected by the number of times you open your oven door. You can find the perfect custard texture by taking a heatproof utensil and giving each ramekin a gentle tap on its side. If the sides are firm but the center jiggles, you're good to go. If the center is firm, you've overcooked your custard.
- Baked chocolate takes on a weird, almost-powdery and grainy-like appearance when it's over cooked. If you see this start to happen to the tops of your pots de crème, cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil to prevent the tops from cooking faster than the rest of the custard.