When I first came to California, I was fortunate enough to meet the young cook-entrepreneurs
Line up the custard cups within easy reach of your stovetop.
Combine the ginger and water in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then boil until the liquid is reduced by about one half. Strain through a fine sieve into a heatproof measuring cup, then put the ginger coins aside for use in the custard.
Rinse the pan to remove any trace of ginger, then return it to the stove. Add ½ cup sugar to the pan, then add ⅓ cup of the ginger water. Any remaining ginger water can be thrown away. Over low heat, gently swirl the pot until the liquid is clear, indicating the sugar has melted. Raise the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil without stirring. Cover the pot for 1–1½ minutes to allow the condensation to wash down any sugar crystals from the sides of the pan. Then remove the lid and continue to boil the mixture until it turns amber with a touch of red. (This is not the rich mahogany color one often sees with crème caramel, but more of an amber-gold.)
As soon as it turns red-amber, quickly portion the liquid among the custard cups, pouring directly from the pot into the molds. If the caramel is the proper consistency, it will solidify almost immediately. (Note that for this rendition that you do not need to twirl or invert the cups to line them with the caramel. A top glaze is all that is needed for it to drip prettily down the sides when the custard is unmolded.)
Put the cups open side up on a rack to cool. If you are working in advance, you may refrigerate the cups overnight, covered with a sheet of plastic film. Bring to room temperature before filling.
If you are not continuing immediately, seal the ginger coins airtight and put them aside. You must use the blanched coins for making the custard or the milk is likely to curdle.
Put ¼ cup sugar, the egg yolks, and whole eggs in a medium-size bowl, and stir gently with a whisk to combine. Do not beat the mixture or cause bubbles to form, which will undermine the smooth texture of the custard.
Combine the milk, ¼ cup sugar, and the reserved ginger coins in a small, heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring gently to dissolve the sugar, until the milk is scalded, and there is a ring of fine bubbles all around the edge.
Remove the pan from the heat and pour several tablespoons of the scalded liquid into the egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking gently. When combined, add the remaining liquid in a thin stream, continuing to whisk gently to blend the mixture. Do not whisk vigorously or too much. You want as few bubbles as possible.
Pour the mixture gently through the strainer to omit the particles of coagulated egg. Then gently pour the custard into the cups, dividing the liquid evenly among them. Let stand several seconds, then skim off any foam on the top. Proceed immediately to bake the custards.
Fill the baking pan with enough warm water to come ⅔ of the way up the sides of the molds. Transfer the pan carefully to the preheated oven and bake the custards for 25–35 minutes, or until a sharp, thin knife inserted at the edge of the mold comes out with a thick, curdlike coating and the top of the custard feels waterbed-bouncy when pressed lightly with a finger. At no time during the baking should the water be allowed to boil. Add some ice cubes to the pan if it appears to need cooling. If the custard is cooked too long or at too high a heat, it will crack and become watery.
When done, remove the molds from the bath and transfer them to a rack to cool at room temperature.
Once cool, the custard may be refrigerated for several days before unmolding and serving, with a piece of plastic film sealing the open cups. For best texture, refrigerate for at least 3–4 hours after coming to room temperature.
Unmold the custards just before serving. You will need a sharp knife with a thin, straight blade long enough to go down to the bottom of the cup, and 6 or 8 pretty serving plates.
To unmold, slip the knife to the bottom of the cup, then run it just once around the custard, keeping the blade pressed against the side of the cup and working smoothly so as not to injure the profile of the custard. Keeping the knife in place, invert the cup halfway over the plate, then press the knife very gently toward the center of the custard to break the vacuum seal. Expect the caramel to seep up to the edge of the cup as you do this. Put the knife down, cover the cup with the plate, then invert the custard onto the center of the plate.
If the custard does not slip out at once, then tilt the mold back to expose the open end, gently reinsert the knife at the edge of the cup, slide it to the bottom and again press gently toward the center to break the seal.
If perfectly cooked, the custard will bulge slightly when unmolded and the texture will be silky smooth.
Serve the custard with a spoon and, if you are in the mood, with a sliver of good crystallized ginger, and a violet or some other small and pretty flower alongside.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.