After being on a diet for some weeks I was getting desperate to make something a little bit naughty. Some months ago I tried, for the first time, a slice of pumpkin pie. I suspected at the time that the recipe was far from a traditional pumpkin pie, but it was delicious, something like a crème brûlée, but with a rich flavour and texture from the pumpkin. I decided to try and create something along those lines, but without the pastry base. We have friends coming for dinner next weekend and I thought it would fit well with our menu, and it was a good excuse to practise the recipe in case adjustments were needed. The result, though, was every bit as delicious as I imagined, and quite straightforward. It will certainly be making further appearances.
Crème brûlée is a simple pudding to make. Egg yolks, sugar, and cream, infused with vanilla, and baked very gently in the oven in a bain-marie. Though the ingredients and method are simple, there can be quite a difference between a great crème brûlée and a mediocre version. Two critical points are the amount of sugar – they are often made a bit too sweet in my view – and perfect cooking. If overcooked, the texture can be ruined; it should remain velvety smooth, soft, and rich. Cooking for too long may produce too firm a custard, whilst cooking at too high a temperature may produce bubbles. Getting this just right takes a little experimentation and careful monitoring during the last minutes of cooking.
A little research revealed that pumpkin pie is a quite different sort of dish, and confirmed that my first taste was not of any sort of traditional recipe. Pumpkin pie appears to be most often spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, and ground ginger, although other spices such as cloves, mace, and allspice appear in some recipes. Recipes also have quite some variation in the base: they include sugar, sometimes some sort of brown sugar, and eggs or egg yolks, but then milk, cream, cream cheese, or evaporated milk appear in various recipes I looked at for inspiration.
Though I am quite keen on making a traditional sort of pumpkin pie at some point, this time I opted for a pumpkin flavoured crème brûlée. This is not, by any means, a unique notion – not only did I taste such a creation, albeit in a sweet pastry case, a quick search of the web shows many recipes, although I was not quite taken with the method or quantities of any particular version so made up my own. Rather than a large watery sort of pumpkin, I used a butternut squash; a different species to that normally referred to as pumpkin, but potentially better flavoured and less watery, not to mention more readily available, from the garden or the supermarket. I debated for some time how to process the squash. One option that I considered was roasting, as it generally gives a richer flavour to the squash, but in the end I elected to steam it. A smooth puree is needed, and various methods could be used, but passing the soft squash through a fine sieve only takes a couple of minutes and gives excellent results. Otherwise, the recipe and method is not unlike that of the usual crème brûlée.
I flavoured the custard with vanilla rather than the more common pumpkin pie spices, mostly because the one I tasted was made with vanilla and I am very fond of it. Alternative spices might be quite interesting to experiment with, though. I used a good quality vanilla pod that yielded lots of strongly flavoured seed. I also used some homemade vanilla sugar. Every time I use the seeds from a pod I add the pod to a jar of caster sugar, where it gradually infuses its flavour into the sugar. If a good vanilla pod is not to hand, vanilla bean paste would perhaps be the next best thing, but there is really nothing quite so fine as the taste of a good quality whole pod.
Once set, a crisp caramel top can be added by sprinkling with sugar and caremelising with a blowtorch or under a very hot grill. Though a traditional part of the crème brûlée, it is not essential, and one could equally eat as it is or top with, say, fresh berries.