I always think of pots de crème, or little pots of crème, as the French answer to our puddings. Really a baked custard, the crème can be created in just about any flavor combo. That uber-chef Daniel Boulud created them to be coffee-cardamom was a nod to the way coffee is often drunk in the Middle East: through a cardamom pod held between one's teeth.
Of course, Daniel being Daniel (and thank goodness he is), he ups the ante a bit: he caramelizes the coffee beans and cardamom pods before he pours in milk and cream and steeps everything for a few minutes. Even though this dessert is made with big flavors—you can hardly call coffee or cardamom wallflower flavors—the caramelizing step makes the flavors even bigger and more intense.
When these are baked in a professional kitchen, the custard cups, set in a roasting pan filled with water, are covered with a sheet of plastic wrap. The wrap doesn't budge or burn because the temperature is low (of course, you've got to have an oven that keeps this low temperature). If the idea of baking with plastic wrap doesn't make you comfortable, cover the set-up with foil.
Coffee-Cardamom Pots de Crème
- 3 ounces (1 cup) coffee beans, preferably an espresso roast
- 2 tablespoons cardamom pods
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 cups (approximately) heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 7 large egg yolks
Put the coffee beans and cardamom pods in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse on and off several times to roughly chop—not grind—the ingredients. Turn the chopped beans and pods into a medium saucepan and add 1/2 cup of the sugar. Put the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sugar starts to melt. Patience—this will take a few minutes. Once the sugar has melted, continue to cook, still stirring without stop, until the sugar caramelizes—you want the color of the caramel to be deep amber. Now, standing away from the stove so you don’t get splattered, slowly pour in 1 cup of the cream and the milk. Don’t panic—the caramel will immediately seize and harden—it will all smooth out as the liquids warm and the sugar melts again. Bring the mixture to a boil and, when the sugar has melted and everything is smooth again, pull the pan from the heat. Cover the pan (we do this with plastic wrap at the Café to get a good seal) and allow the mixture to infuse 20 minutes.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 300°F.
Working in a bowl that’s large enough to hold all the ingredients, whisk the yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick. Strain the coffee-cardamom liquid into a measuring cup (discard the beans and pods) and add enough heavy cream to bring the liquid measurement up to 2 cups. Very gradually and very gently—you don’t want to create air bubbles—whisk the liquid into the egg mixture; skim off the top foam, if there is any.
Arrange six 4-ounce espresso or custard cups in a small roasting pan, leaving an even amount of space between the cups, and fill each cup nearly to the top with the custard mixture. (If you liked, line the roasting pan with a double thickness of paper towel or a kitchen towel to steady the cups.) Carefully slide the pan into the oven; then, using a pitcher, fill the roasting pan with enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the espresso cups. Cover the pan with plastic wrap (don’t worry—it can stand the heat) and poke two holes in two diagonally opposite corners. Bake the custards for about 40 minutes, or until the edges darken ever so slightly and the custards are set but still jiggle a little in the center when you shake them gently.
Remove the pan from the oven and let the custards sit in the water bath for 10 minutes. Peel off the plastic wrap, lift the cups out of the water and cool the custards in the refrigerator. (The pots de creme can be prepared a day ahead and, when cool, covered with plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator.)
To serve: The pots de creme are at their best at room temperature, so remove them from the refrigerator and keep them on the counter for about 20 minutes before serving.