I’m as sceptical of any sort of adulterated creme brûlée as I am of anything that’s supposed to taste like pumpkin pie –other than pumpkin pie. I love both dishes just as they are. You can keep your pumpkin spice latte: I’ll just have black coffee and a slice of the real thing, thank you. But Julia was home sick and I thought she’d get a kick out of baking little pumpkins (as would I), and so I tried and tinkered with this recipe. I’m glad I did.
I like it in part because it’s neither souped-up creme brûlée nor just a really cute pumpkin pie. The relatively large amount of pumpkin puree in the custard gives it a firmer, lighter texture than traditional silky creme brûlée, and the recipe avoids the blend of ginger, allspice and nutmeg that signals “pumpkin pie,” at least to most Americans. It’s also truly delicious in its own right. The earthy-sweet pumpkin and bitter-sweet burned sugar are a lovely seasonal combination. And, of course, those little pumpkins will delight more than just under-the-weather four year-olds.
One of the best things about this recipe is that you get to use a torch to melt the sugar into the hard crust that tops the custard. You can use a fancy butane kitchen torch to do this, but I use an equally effective (and cheaper) simple propane torch you can get at any hardware store.
And, if you like baking things in pumpkins, try the savory Roasted Pumpkin Fondue.
(Adapted from Pumpkin Creme Brulee by Daniel Boulud, serves 8)
8 mini pumpkins (about 4 inches across and 1 1/2 -2 inches tall)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup plus about 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, split
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cardamom pods (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350F
2. Cut the tops off of the pumpkins. I found the best way to do this was to set the blade of a large chef’s knife into the side of a pumpkin and then strike it against the cutting board like a hammer, keeping my free hand out of harm’s way. (Be careful — these are hard, slippery little devils.)
3. Then scoop out the seeds. (A melon baller was just the ticket for this.)
4. Mix together the ground cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of sugar and sprinkle it over the insides of the pumpkins. Put their tops back on and wrap them each up in aluminum foil. Place them on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes or until the flesh is tender.
5. Meanwhile, make the custard.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a heatproof bowl. Pour the cream into a medium saucepan and warm it over medium heat. Lightly crush the cardamom pods under the flat of your knife and then add them and the cinnamon stick (and the vanilla bean, if using) to the cream and bring to a simmer. Strain the hot cream through a fine sieve and then add it slowly to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Whisk in the pumpkin puree (and the vanilla extract, if using).
6. Remove the pumpkins from the foil, put them back on the baking sheet and fill them to about 1/4 inch of their rims. (You can also bake the custard in ramekins — just place them in a baking dish and fill it halfway with lukewarm water before placing in the oven.) Return the pumpkins to the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the sides of the custard are well set but it still wobbles slightly in the center. If the centers are still liquid, return to the oven for a few more minutes. (The pumpkins keep the custard moist, so you don’t have to worry so much about drying it out.) If you’re baking the custard in ramekins, the cooking time will be 25-30 minutes.
7. Now for the fun part. Let the pumpkins cool to room temperature, and, shortly before you’re ready to serve, then sprinkle a generous teaspoon of sugar evenly over the custard in each. Then, using a kitchen torch or a propane torch from a hardware store (with a medium-low flame), carefully carmelize the sugar into a thin, hard crust. (You can use the same technique if you cook the custard in ramekins.)
Top with the pumpkin caps and serve.