Pistachio creme brulee can be made with nuts according to the accompanying recipe or with a nut-flavored extract. - MCT

Custards & Creams

A steady supply of "the world's best eggs" has sent chef Constance Jesser on a culinary kick.

"When you find something this good, you just want to have a custard," she says.

And plenty of customers at Jesser's Jacksonville Mercantile are following suit. Since creme brulee has become "standard" in local restaurants, says Jesser, fans naturally want to make the popular dessert at home, but they often achieve mixed results.

"Most people just don't realize how simple and easy these things can be."

Requests for tips to perfect creme brulee, along with creme caramel and panna cotta, caused Jesser to highlight them next week in a new cooking class at her gourmet-foods store. The demonstration and tasting will culminate with Jesser torching a layer of sugar atop a creme brulee.

Whereas a creme brulee's caramelized sugar caps off the custard, a creme caramel's constitutes the dessert's foundation. Lacking eggs, a panna cotta consists of dairy bound with gelatin.

Although vanilla is the traditional flavoring agent for each, the spectrum of fruity, nutty, even floral aromas can accent a custard, says Jesser. High-quality extracts are the easiest way to infuse some unexpected tastes, she adds. Four-ounce bottles range in price at the Mercantile from $8.95 to $10.95. Pistachio, hazelnut and black walnut are among Jesser's favorites.

"For something really unusual, we have hibiscus, coffee and Champagne."

Finishing a flavored custard with a flower syrup imparts another layer of intrigue, she says. Rose goes particularly well with pistachio and is reminiscent of Middle Eastern fare.

Perhaps more critical than flavor is a custard's texture. Baked too long, the dessert is rubbery, even "too eggy," says Jesser. She advocates baking custard dishes in a water bath, but starting with cool water, instead of boiling. The gradual increase in water temperature stabilizes the eggs' proteins, she says.

"It makes a huge difference."

Likewise, a custard's cream should never be boiled. Stirred into a panna cotta's simmering cream, the gelatin should be just enough to give the dessert shape. A good version should still quiver when touched. Experts cite a gelatin-to-dairy ratio of 3/4 teaspoon per cup as ideal.

Unmolding panna cotta is typical before serving. Unconventional vessels, such as espresso cups, can add whimsy to other forms of custard, says Jesser.

"Presentation is another thing people are mixing up," she says. "It's not always in a ramekin."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email

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