The Proof Is In The Pudding...

The first time I visited Paris, I was eleven years old, and I had been eager to visit the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and to see the paintings of the Impressionists, with whom I was obsessed at the time. I wouldn't develop my interest in food for nearly another decade, and I was happy to eat croissants and drink impossibly rich cups of hot chocolate. 

My palate was far less developed at that point in my life, so when we engaged in an epic taxi journey to a restaurant on the outskirts of the city that had been recommended by one of Dad's well-traveled friends, we both found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering what all the fuss was about. The waitstaff there spoke no English, so we were on our own to figure out what we should eat. After what seemed like an incredibly average meal to me, it was time to select a dessert, so I went with the one word I recognized -- chocolate. 

What I had ordered turned out to be a chocolate pot de crème, and when I sampled my first spoonful, I exclaimed something along the lines of, "It's French chocolate pudding!" Pudding was just fine with eleven-year-old me, but it didn't seem especially fancy, given my conception of French desserts at the time.

It would be years before I encountered pots de crème again, but I've recently noticed it popping up on more and more menus as contemporary comfort food has become increasingly trendy.What could be more comforting than a cool, rich bowl of creamy pudding?  Pudding is the sort of dessert that your mom or grandma whipped up for you throughout your childhood and pre-packaged pudding cups were a ubiquitous addition to school lunches for pretty much everyone I knew. Slapping a French name on a bowl of pudding means that restaurants can charge more for it, and they usually do.

I'd been meaning to use our new ramekins to make some pots de crème of my own lately, and this weekend I decided to do just that. I was originally tempted by a recipe I'd seen for Mexican chocolate pots de crème, since I still have more Ibarra hanging out in my pantry, and chocolate seems like a natural match for pudding in my book. However, after last week's fudge, I figured many of you might be suffering from Mexican chocolate fatigue, and decided to go with another recipe that has been lingering on my Pinterest dessert board for quite a while now for maple pots de crème.

I was a little skeptical about maple pudding, but maple is one of my favorite flavors in general, and I just happened to have all the ingredients for it in my pantry, including the hard-to-find-in-the-Midwest maple sugar, so it seemed meant to be. When I told Mom about my plan, she was actually reassuring for once (much of the time, she finds my food and flavor experiments to be a silly waste of time and perfectly good food), as she recounted a memory of a now-discontinued maple Jello pudding flavor that she once found quite tasty.

With the exception of some oven issues that led to some uneven cooking of the puddings despite my use of a water bath, the pots de crème turned out with a lovely, subtle maple flavor. Unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed the caramelized almond topping, with added not only some nice crunch, but a pleasantly toasty nut flavor to the mix. Is there anything that can't be improved by the addition of caramel? I think not.

Next time I'm in the mood for pudding, I'll definitely be staying away from the stuff in the box and making something from scratch. I'm keen to give that Mexican chocolate recipe a chance, but maple was an unexpectedly delightful change of pace. The nice thing about these elegant, individual desserts is that they would make a perfect dinner party dessert; everyone gets their own portion and they can be made in advance and served chilled. I can see why they've gained so much traction in the restaurant industry lately...

Maple Pots de Crème with Almond Praline
adapted from Bon Appètit

For Praline:
2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
pinch of kosher salt

For Pudding:
6 large egg yolks
1/3 c. maple sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon maple extract
pinch of kosher salt
1 1/2 c. heavy whipping cream

For Praline:
1. Push almonds together in 4-inch square on a piece of parchment paper. 
2. Stir sugar, 1 tablespoon water, corn syrup, and coarse salt in small heavy saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until syrup is dark amber, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 5 minutes. Immediately pour caramel evenly over almonds, coating completely. Let stand until cold and hard, about 30 minutes. Break praline into pieces or process to coarse crumbs. Can be made up to four days in advance and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

For Pudding:
Preheat oven to 325°F. 
1. Arrange four 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups in 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan. Whisk yolks, both sugars, extract, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in cream. Divide pudding among ramekins. Pour enough hot water into baking pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins. 
2. Bake puddings until center is just set, about 35 minutes. Transfer to work surface; let stand 15 minutes. Chill uncovered until cold, at least 2 hours. 
3. Cover; chill overnight. 
4. Sprinkle praline over chilled pudding to serve.

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