During most of my childhood, my dad kept a chicken coop in the empty lot next to our house where he raised chickens and pigeons. The chickens were for fresh eggs (and the occasional chicken for dinner) and the pigeons were for eating. I know that to city dwellers, the idea of eating pigeons, a.k.a. flying rats, sounds pretty unappetizing, but these were not the kinds of pigeons you find in a city. They were fed a clean diet of grains and kept in a large coop. My dad slaughtered young pigeons and cooked them over hot coals. They were reserved for a special meal and I always loved eating them. They had a sweet, almost caramelized taste, and they were incredibly tender.
But back to the chickens. When I was really little I was too scared to walk inside the chicken coop (it was big enough to hold several adults standing up) and collect the eggs. The chickens flapped around too much and seemed really menacing to me. But I remember that one time, my mom asked me if I felt ok going to get her two eggs. I must have been six or seven years old by then and in a rare moment of bravery I said yes. “Hold them carefully, ok?” she said. “Don’t drop them or they’ll break.”
I had my mission. I approached the coop and slowly opened the door. I was in luck. One of the hens was eating peacefully in the corner and she had left her two freshly laid eggs undefended.The other hens seemed quiet, sitting over their own eggs. Gingerly, I stepped forward with both eyes on the hen. I reached and took one egg in each hand and backed my way out of the coop, never losing sight of that hen. As soon as the door closed behind me, I knew I had done it. I had procured the eggs and conquered the chickens.
Feeling relieved and elated I started to walk back to our house to triumphantly give the eggs to my mom. I’d show her how I was a big boy now, brave and helpful to her. I was ready to start running to the house when I remembered my mom’s words: Hold them carefully, ok? I realized I hadn’t been careful enough. So I held on to those two eggs tighter. I took only one more step before both eggs burst in my palms, egg whites and yolk dripping onto the ground. I looked at my hands and burst into tears, loud enough for my mom to hear me and come out. Between sobs I told her I was sorry and that I was trying to hold them tight so they wouldn’t drop and this is what happened. She smiled, took me inside and cleaned my hands, and explained to me that eggs are fragile and that it was ok, that next time I would know not to hold them too tight.
She went back to the coop herself and got two eggs from another hen. She needed them to make crème caramel, that wonderful desert that so many cuisines have riffed on. Hers was the classic French kind. Deep amber caramel and a quivering custard made with milk, eggs, and vanilla. By the time she finished making it and it chilled enough for me to eat, several hours later, I had forgotten all about the broken eggs.
Crème Caramel – Translated and adapted from Meilleur du Chef
Note: When I was researching recipes for créme caramel online, I was pretty horrified at what I found. Recipes that use heavy cream, cornstarch, crème fraîche, and all kinds of other nonsense. So I looked for a recipe where I knew I could find an authentic one: the French. This is how créme caramel should be: just milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Nothing else.
200 g sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 liter whole milk
7 large eggs
250 g sugar
1 vanilla bean
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Let the sugar dissolve. Increase the heat to medium-high and boil until the caramel turns light golden brown, about 10 minutes (it happens quickly towards the end; don’t let the caramel get too dark). Remove from the heat immediately and carefully divide the hot caramel among 8 ramekins, quickly swirling to cover the entire bottom of each ramekin. Let cool on the countertop. The caramel should harden. Arrange the ramekins in a deep baking pan (at least 2″ deep).
Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. In a medium saucepan, add the milk, vanilla bean seeds, and the whole bean. Heat the milk to just below boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, add the eggs and sugar and whisk together until combined thoroughly. When milk is hot, pour about 1/3 cup slowly in eggs while whisking continuously. Repeat with 1/3 cup of hot milk at a time until you have incorporated all the milk with the eggs (discard the vanilla bean). Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Pour into the 8 ramekins. Pour boiling water into the pan holding the ramekins until the water level reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes until the custard is just set. Remove from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Remove from the water bath and let cool to room temperature on a cooling rack. Cover ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold.
To serve, run a knife around the edges of each ramekin and invert the custards onto serving plates.