Last Friday, Great Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that "sales of custard over the last six months have increased by 20 per cent compared to the same period last year." The global financial crisis has reached a frightening crescendo, and consumers are attempting to "ward off the economic crisis with nursery fare from their childhood."
What's true in England is also true here in the United States: the popularity of cheap, comforting foods such as boxed macaroni and cheese and instant chocolate pudding is on the rise. More people are cutting back on food costs by staying home and cooking for themselves, and the meals they are making are often composed of bargain staples and pre-made ingredients.
But just because we're tightening our belts figuratively doesn't mean we must tighten them literally. I wanted to see if it was possible to prepare a silky, creamy, totally indulgent French dessert for next-to-nothing. What did I choose when I hit my local supermarket, jar of pennies in tow? Dr. Oetker's Classic Crème Brûlée Premium Dessert Mix. At $1.79 it serves four, which breaks down to a mere 45 cents a person. It doesn't get much cheaper that that.
The boxed mix contains two separate packages: one is a "custard pouch," the other is a "caramelizing sugar pouch." In order to prepare the crème brûlée, I simply combined the custard pouch with 1 cup of milk and 1 cup of heavy cream in a saucepan, brought it to a boil, and simmered it for 30 seconds. The mixture thickened at an alarming rate, mutating from a consistency not unlike a homemade ice cream base to something more like mayonnaise.
After dividing the goopy custard between four ramekins and leaving them to cool, I couldn't help licking the spoon. To my surprise it wasn't half bad. The custard tasted a lot like instant vanilla pudding. A little bit cloying, but definitely smooth and consistent. Standing at my kitchen sink, I felt vaguely consoled and soothed.
An hour later I sprinkled my custards with the contents of the second packet. They looked a bit sparse, especially by the time I got to the last one, and I wished I had more caramelizing sugar. Oh well. I slid them under the broiler (the box didn't even mention the option of using a kitchen torch to melt the topping). Five minutes later they emerged, if not exactly browned and crackly, then at least tanned and crispy.
I tapped into one still warm, and I have to say, it was pretty good—not bistro good, or brasserie good—but in a (wallet) pinch it definitely did the trick. After chilling in the refrigerator the custard firmed up a bit and tasted even thicker and more luxurious. Unfortunately, however, the brulee became wilted and sticky. If I were to prepare these again I would make an amendment to the instructions: chill the custards thoroughly before broiling the tops, then serve them immediately.