Petit pots de creme

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Everyone knows that creme brulee is a real star amongst french desserts and of course, who couldn’t command attention with a blowtorch?  But it is plunging underneath, into the dense, creamy consistency that makes me close my eyes and sink back into my chair. There is no need to  sugar up and inflame the crust  to impress in this kitchen, we like him pretty much as is at room temperature or lightly chilled. This rich custard is perfect on its own. It is a foregone conclusion that every anglophone visitor to the french supermarket’s dairy aisle is going to have at least a heart quickening ‘moment’ or a full blown love affair with the ‘pot de creme’. If you haven’t already, pencil ‘dairy desserts aisle ‘ onto your french must see list, right after the Eiffel Tower! The density of these cremes asks us to take a small spoon, little mouthfuls, adopting childlike enthusiasm for the condensed wobbly richesse!

For this post we can almost sidestep the vast supply of yogurt choices in these hallowed dairy aisles, nearly but not quite! I do know that french yogurts are of excellent quality and do taste terrific.  I do however have a complete disregard toward palaver for dietary good health, it is just so dull! When I read of recipes to specifically promote good health, I feel myself simply withering at even the title.  You may find me careless and unconscionable, or even majoritively  off the wall, well so be it. I ask you to plunge to your heart’s delight (and yes, yes, probably literal peril, oh whatever) into these cremes – make your day a fete of the joys of small pleasures. But before we slide off to a quiet spot and indulge in a rich dessert, take a last glance at those saintly yogurts – for they are going to provide us with an invaluable contribution today. Ah no, don’t be mistaken: I’m not repenting and ready to sing the praises of good bacteria – being superbly shallow, rather, I am just there to steal their stunningly cute baby pots!

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Cremes are sold in a flat, widish glass pots that are often recycled for children to decorate in kindergarten maternelle at Christmas time to make tea light candle holders. The slightly taller barrel shaped yogurt jars are quite frankly adorable and both styles are used all year round as paint and glue pots. For this recipe today, without caramelising his crust and wanting to augment the surface area, I lean toward the taller yogurt jars.  With such a cute exterior, let’s make a smooth sweet interior and I’ll tell you a little about the history of these little squat pots. These dinky little cups, equally sweet to both small child and adult alike, they never lose their appeal. I gush over the petit pots en verre, little glass pots, today as much as two decades after first seeing them and I react as some women will coo over a baby. So imagine how my voice rose to that high pitched giggly squeak when I discovered a few nuggets of tempting detail when researching and rummaging for vintage glass pots! Pre second-world war yogurts were sold in earthenware pots in pharmacies and touted for their nutritional benefits.  As the commercial  manufacture of yogurt took hold in France post war,  these little cutie glass pots were produced en masse and were lighter for transport but with added elements of attraction! A little rounder, squatter and more cartoonishly cute, they have been heartbreakers to housewives and kiddies alike across France since way before my time.  And if that wasn’t sweet enough,  they had been flashing brazen logos and  company names  in swirling script across their little bellies!  The adorable factor just sent me into a flurry of stamping my feet!

As I always do when set off by some vintage image or raw curiosity, I began by sourcing a single pot of yesteryear. I was instantly charmed by that seductive mix of originality, rarity and the irresistible urge to touch the past and hold it in my own hands.  Then of course the attractiveness of one multiplied to two, unleashing the possibility of  seeking out more and more variations within this realm of artistry. It always starts out the same way and I see the flicker of fear  pass a shadow over my lovely and always encouraging husband’s face…..

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Le delicieux, well that says it all with more than a little aplomb! To see his stout little body tossing forward his round, full belly like a toddler! He splurges, ‘Ah oui, il est fameux‘, ah yes, he’s famous, this little coquin, cheeky, pronounces, his small tongue protruding gleefully.

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In a more traditional style is La roche aux fees, ‘the fairy rock’; such a mysterious, evocative name, and with cursive script just caressing the glass surface. Inspired by the neolithic celtic rock of the same name in Brittany, a north western rugged coastal corner where butter, lait ribot ( cultured milks) and solidly dependable dairy products are entrenched in local diet. Produced in Nantes, la roche aux fees had somewhat of a cult following over the years and even produced, to kiddies delight, those sorts of toys, booklets, collectibles that even kiddies of today still fall for.

Rival has its provenance in the region of Charente Maritimes, on the mid west French coast in the commune of Aytré  where my husband lived for a year at preschool age. This brand was founded by the merger of four dairy co operatives in 1950. This glass is printed with the recognisable three harbour towers that have become the emblem of the adjoining city of La Rochelle. The tower of St Nicholas, constructed in the 14th century and the 15th century towers of  la chaine (to close the harbour) and la lanterne (to locate it). In 1968, Rival merged with who we all know now as Yoplait.

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“La Mere Etienne” –  the Mother Etienne – doesn’t any name proceeded by ‘mother’ win instant points of confidence? The font! A curly cursive looks like it was deftly penned with a flourish by the wonderful Etienne herself after she had produced, yet again, another perfect batch. I note the location of Poitou,  this region being achingly famous for it’s really beautiful butter. And not just Poitou is written but au coeur du Poitou, at the heart of Poitou, not straggling on any border region:  again mother Etienne is reassuring us of her dependability…..oh sigh!

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Benauge, from the south-western city of Bordeaux is caricatured with a comically posed cow. I am imagining all those animated little toddlers of the mid century in their knee highs and pleated skirts or pressed shorts being cajoled to eat their yogurt with this quirky looking fellow. Is she in pain with this posture? She looks like she needs milking for her udders, but her facial expression is indifferent…

Then of course, comes someone utterly famous that indeed we all know, the illustrious one who manages to bridge the gap between yogurts and creamy pots and makes us love her version of both. Here is the predecessor to the tubs of today – a solid glass Danone. See how beautiful she was in her youth?DSC_0811[1].JPG

And oh how different to nowadays!  Like so many others, falling for the hollow promises of today’s modern plastic aesthetic! Tragic, isn’t it?

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So gone is the era when the jars were embossed or embellished and originality was marked straight onto the glass. So many have sacrificed these cute little pots with their spoon on glass tinkly, clinking sound to some plastic scraping nothingness. Oh boo!

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There are others who have steadfastly melded the somewhat old style and modern practicality by use of waxed carton containers, sealed with the tight-as-a-drum foil caps. Examples being St Malo or  Le petit Basque of today and I am always chuffed to take home some of these quaint cuties. Of those here who retain the glass homage to the past, it is still a real challenge for me to relinquish these undecorated versions to the recycling boxes when empty. I can’t. I cling on… I just might need them… all. However many we consume and however many I put away, I am not so good at letting go. My children are well past maternelle age, no paint pots needed here. But you just never know what they may be useful for! Weeny vases, pencil pots or filled with any number of little baubles or such, the shape makes me want them on display. I recently had a set of 6, emptied and washed out.  I put them aside to go with the others I have hidden away in a vintage buffet (ah ha, but you don’t know which vintage buffet, my dear husband and note to my reader, buffets we have many!).  Wincing, I left these little newbies  beside the sink – I am trying really hard to arrive at a point where I can let them go… I closed my eyes, they disappeared….I couldn’t bear to know.

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A 19th century hand blown glass flask used by pastry chefs to store orange blossom water; a dutch early 20th century glass measuring beaker

There is no shortage of recipes milling about for creams: creme brulee, creme renversee, english custard, oeufs au lait, creme Catalane. Lets try to start really simply. For this recipe there are many flavours you can choose from, the classic vanilla, orange blossom water, chocolate, coffee, caramel, pistachio…each with various merits and always pulled together with thick somewhat solid consistency.

My recipe is very simple. I confess to being at times a corner cutter but I also want to prove that simple can do very well.  I do not scald milk, or sieve cream, or egg cream custards etc; there will be no muslin-lined strainers found here.  If you are, or think you might have the predisposition to be one of the mother Etiennes of the world, feel free to go ahead and rub it in.

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Otherwise, just make your creme by whisking all the ingredients together and pouring into the most adorable little pots you can find. I am sorry we cannot avoid to use a bain marie for the cooking. If I could, I would, but it will turn the custards to a curdled muddle and that would push me to tearful disappointment. You and certainly I don’t want to be deflated like that.DSC_0671.JPG

DSC_0341A really yummy surface will form, a golden  suspension of time captured in a teeny bubble crust. Hands down I prefer this, as there really is no need to sugar up  further an already perfect cream and blow torch it or attack it with one of those tools that looks like an iron for branding cattle. Orange flower water is not classically found in creme brulee but rather a hint of vanilla, which I love equally as much in this recipe. Try it.  For me. This blossom flavour always slides back and forth between a mere whisper and at the same time markedly intense, like a blush.   It is a flavour that always makes me think of baking from past times,  so reverently evoking images of such skilled grannies or aunts in well worn kitchens, but so curiously, it is not a flavour I knew before ever  moving to France. Perhaps I am falling into my imagination’s french reverie d’antan, dream of yesteryear, and go on, I think you should just try that too…..

Petit pots de creme aux fleurs d’oranger

250ml milk

250 ml cream*

1 whole egg,

4 egg yolks

65g raw sugar

1 tsp orange flower water

Heat oven to 150°C.  Set 6 petite oven proof pots inside a baking dish deep enough to hold water to half immerse their sides.

Place milk and sugar in a bowl and leave to dissolve a little whilst you gather your other ingredients and crack open your eggs.

Stir the milk and sugar mixture, adding the cream and orange flower water.  Whisk in the eggs to break them up well and dissolve the sugar. Do not whip energetically enough to make a big foamy mousse, as this will eventually drop and make a less pretty pudding. Just whip enough to bubble a little the surface then pour carefully into your pots.

Carefully pour water into the water bath around the pots until about half or three quarters of the way up the sides.

Place in the oven and allow to cook for approximately 45 minutes; you will see your golden cremes rise up to the occasion and stop to jiggle about. Makes 4-6 depending upon your pot sizes.

Serve warm with the obligatory long handled parfait spoon.

*If you want to substitute thick or double cream or whatever maxi version of goodness you can snavel in store, I am never going to stop you: please do.

Flavour variations (omitting orange blossom water), melted dark chocolate, natural pistachio flavouring…    Vanilla pods, coffee beans, orange zest or even fresh verbena leaves can be infused in cream, but of course this would require scalding milk beforehand! For a biscuity version, try dissolving 50g of tea biscuits in a little hot milk before adding to the rest of the liquids (plus vanilla or orange blossom water). This is delicious,  but it really does require sieving!

Regalez -vous!!!  Treat yourself……

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With thanks to yaourtophile.free.fr for historical details.