Last Saturday night we hosted a dinner for Glen’s camera crew here at our house. As I mentioned in my last post my husband has been working on a television series for the past ten years and it finally came to an end a week ago. Glen really wanted to do something special to show the guys (and girl) how much their hard work and support has meant to him. We were pleased that almost everyone (30 people!) could attend and Saturday turned out to be one of those really wonderful and memorable evenings filled with laughter and reminiscing.
When I worked at the restaurant, cooking for thirty people over the course of an evening would have felt dreadfully slow and boring. However, when you are trying to pull it off in your own home (without commercial stoves, refrigerators, line cooks and a dishwasher or two) it is a whole different ball game.
I called on a few dear friends to come over and help us set up and do food prep. Once the evening was underway these kind souls did everything from mix drinks, to find vases for flowers, take people’s coats and then help plate and serve dinner. Even my dear, sweet Dad changed his plans and came home a day early from Mexico to help and also did much of the clean-up the next day. I am very lucky in the family and friends department.
To keep my sanity, I kept things simple. The menu was made up of dishes that could be prepped in advance, requiring just a bit of last minute cooking and assembly. Thanks to all of the amazing help I had the dinner was super well received and we had as much fun in the kitchen as everyone else did in the dining area.
The only minor misstep was the dessert. When I was planning the menu it seemed perfect. A silky crème brûlée flavoured with the fresh bay leaves from the rapidly growing sweet bay tree on my back deck. I could make a big batch of the custard and then cook it off in batches. Check. Even though it takes a bit of time for the custard to steep so that the bay leaf has a chance to infuse the cream this is a hands off step and other kitchen tasks could be accomplished at the same time. Check. It could be made the day before and then left in the fridge to happily chill overnight. Check. I have (or could borrow) enough brûlée dishes and soufflé dishes and ramekins to make thirty portions. Check.
So what was the issue? Well, right before serving you need to painstakingly caramelize the sugar to form that delicious, crunchy topping, and it takes more than a bit of time, and muscle, to brûlée the sugar atop thirty individual dishes of dessert. Especially when one of your three blow torches decides to pack it in completely and the second of the three only works intermittently. Next time I will stick to a chocolate cake.
Even so, this is still one of my very favourite desserts. It may seem strange to combine bay leaves with something sweet. Most people are used to adding bay leaves to savory dishes like stocks and stews but historically bay was used in many sweet custards and puddings. It adds a herbal, ethereal, almost nutmeg-like note that perfectly compliments the vanilla in the custard and the crunchy, caramelized topping. And it really is a breeze to make…for eight people.
Bay Leaf Crème Brûlée
You really do need to use fresh bay leaves here, dried ones just don’t have the sweet, herbal note you are looking for. Bay leaves can be found at many grocery stores or join the adventure club and grow your own bay tree. I had one for about 7 years in my garden before it was killed during a cold spell a few years ago. Now, I have one happily growing in a pot on my back deck, which I can bring in the house if the weather turns too cold.
2 cups of whole milk
2 cups of heavy cream
12 fresh bay laurel leaves
1/2 of a vanilla bean, split and pulp scraped out
3 large eggs
5 large egg yolks
3/4 cup of sugar plus an additional 1/4 cup for the brûlée top
Pinch of salt
Pour the milk and the cream into a medium, heavy bottom saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Just as it begins to boil, coarsely tear the bay leaves and add them to the milk and cream mixture. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla pulp and pod, stir to combine and allow to steep for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Using a whisk, beat the eggs, egg yolks, 3/4 cup of granulated sugar and the pinch of salt in a medium bowl. Whisk in the milk mixture until well combined and then strain through a fine mesh sieve and discard the bay leaves and vanilla pod.
Pour the custard into eight, six ounce ramekins and then set them in a shallow baking pan that has been filled with one inch of hot water. Carefully place them in the preheated oven on the centre rack and cook them until just set about 40 minutes. They will still be just a bit jiggly in the centre but will firm up in the fridge.
Remove from the water bath and chill in the refrigerator until the custards are set, at least two hours or overnight.
To serve, spread 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly on the top of each ramekin and using a blowtorch heat the sugar until it caramelizes evenly. Allow to sit at room temperature for a couple of minutes until the caramelized sugar hardens. Serve.
Recipe from The Herbfarm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld.