Editor's note: Living in the Colorado high country is pure joy. Baking in it isn't. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips to make baking in the mountains successful.
I love Thanksgiving - a whole day devoted to food. As it approaches, I seek out ways to provide the time-honored tastes and ingredients with a new twist, so I don't serve the same dishes every year. That's what led me to these pumpkin pots de creme. Flavored with maple, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, they remind me of glorified pumpkin pie filling but richer, lighter and more velvety; they're a wonderful way to pay tribute to Thanksgiving's traditional pumpkin dessert.
The elegance, creamy texture and pleasing taste of these pots de creme aren't their only winning attributes. I was delighted to find that that they can wait in the refrigerator for two days before serving and come together without elaborate preparation; it takes about half an hour of active time to get them in the oven.
A few things are critical to their success: Be sure to use pure maple syrup and, if you can find it, Grade B or dark amber maple syrup, which have a more robust taste. Use good canned pumpkin; canned pumpkin pie filling cannot be substituted for it. Don't try to speed up the baking time; the creamy texture requires slow, gentle baking. And don't overbake these beauties; remove them from the oven when they are set but still jiggle.
The dessert is lovely on its own, but a dollop of sweetened whipped cream enhances both the taste and the presentation. I sometimes sprinkle the whipped cream with finely chopped toasted pecans and often accompany the dessert with pecan shortbread cookies or ginger thins.
Pumpkin Pots de Creme
(Make in 8 half-cup (4 ounce) ramekins or custard cups.)
6 large egg yolks
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
A pinch ground ginger
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3⁄4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
1⁄2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, preferably dark amber or Grade B
1⁄2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons canned pumpkin
Whipped cream, optional
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the center position. Heat a kettle of water to boiling to use as a water bath. Find a pan that will hold your ramekins so that they are not touching the pan sides or one another, and line the bottom of it with paper towels or a kitchen towel (this will prevent the ramekins from sliding around.) Set the pan aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt until combined. In a heavy saucepan, whisk the cup of whipping cream, the whole milk, the maple syrup and the pumpkin. Place the saucepan on medium heat, and stir gently until the mixture comes to a simmer. Immediately remove it from the heat, stir it a few more times, and very slowly, in a thin stream, whisk it into the egg yolks. (If you do this too fast, the hot mixture will cook the eggs, so take your time.)
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a large measuring cup or a bowl with a pouring spout. (Pouring it through the sieve captures any lumps in the mixture that would detract from its smooth texture.) Divide it evenly among the ramekins, filling them to about a 1⁄4-inch from the top, and place them in the prepared pan. Make sure water can circulate around all of them. Put the pan on the oven rack, and carefully pour the boiling water into the pan until it comes half way up the ramekins. (To prevent getting water in the ramekins themselves, I take one out of the pan and pour the water into the pan in the space I've created, then I return the ramekin to the pan.) Tent a piece of aluminum foil over the pan; don't cover the pan tightly, you want air to circulate under the foil.
Bake until the tops of the custards darken a bit, are set and firmed up the point that they jiggle like jello .... if you gently shake one of the ramekins, the center of the custard will still move. The amount of time this takes will depend upon the size of your ramekins and how warm the water in the water bath was when you poured it. When I use 4-ounce (half-cup) ramekins, they usually require from 60-70 minutes, but start checking before that. Don't overbake them; they'll firm up more as they cool. Remove the pan from the oven and the ramekins from the pan (I lift them out of the hot water with kitchen tongs). Cool them on a rack and, when completely cool, refrigerate them, covered, for at least three hours, and up to two days, before serving. If desired, top with whipped cream.
This recipe was inspired by one in Gourmet Magazine.
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor with CMC's Culinary Institute, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.