I’m slowly making the mental transition into fall. Truth be told, I’m not entirely certain I ever fully transitioned into summer from spring, although I quickly got to used the long days of sunlight — bright at 6:00am and still hanging on at 9:00pm.
My sense of seasonality is guided more by my gardens than the calendar. Although many of my summer crops are still happily putting out fruit (tomatoes!), the fall crops are taking hold, and I’m beginning the annual late summer clean-up, pulling spent plants, taking large cuttings of annual herbs for preserving, making mental notes for next year’s crop rotation — which soils need to be amended with which nutrients and whatnot.
Still, I’m hovering between the two seasons, fall and summer, slowly reaching out for one while clinging stubbornly to the other. So I surprised myself a bit when I felt the need to make soup and pies this weekend on the heels of a super-summery, tomato-caprese-driven lunch. It was the cool temps, no doubt (barely breaking into the 70’s either day), and salted caramel had been on my mind for a while anyway.
Yes, while the nation’s halves poke and finger point in election frenzy, I’m thinking about salted caramel. With our government’s system of checks and balances, no single person is going to ruin or save the country in four years — Congress plays the larger role there, and its composition can rapidly change without our voting say, through retirements, deaths, and scandal. I’ll cast my vote in November, and the nation’s will be done. (And we’ll all survive, I promise.)
Meanwhile, salted caramel should not be denied.
Out of the blue. That’s pretty much how the inspiration came about for the pie part of these salted caramel custard pies. It wasn’t a magical, lyrical moment. There’s no long story behind it. Just a word, printed white-on-black in my brain.
It was enough … I ran with it. Folks who follow me on Facebook got the iPad photo preview Saturday afternoon. I was giddy with the energy of a great idea coming to life and had to share with like-minded peeps. Ain’t social media grand?
Custard is easy anyway, and the salted caramel version went just as planned (well, not all went according to plan, but I’ll get to that a minute. First, some more photos).
What made me very happy about the result was that these pies, full of creamy salted caramel custard, were not heavy or cloyingly sweet, as you might expect: The lightly salted graham-cracker-oat crust cut through the sweet with its savory crunch. This recipe’s a keeper, for sure.
Oh, and about the not-according-to-plan part … I placed the pie tins on a quarter baking sheet and stuck them in the fridge, balancing the pan precariously on top of water pitchers and ketchup and kimchi bottles. As could totally be predicted, things shifted a bit over the course of prepping dinner, and the tilted tins began dripping custard off their edges.
That wasn’t the problem.
The problem came when I pulled out the pan to clean up the pie tins. I still don’t know what happened, but in the blink of an eye, the pan was on the floor, upside-down. I was holding one pie when the pan fell, so it was unharmed. One of the three remaining pies fell cleanly upside-down, on its plastic wrap. Another one sort of survived — mangled, but edible. The fourth was total loss.
Heartbreaking. I only wish I had had the presence of mind to photograph the mess before cleaning it up. It was impressive — salted caramel custard every where.
Still, the ones that survived … well, they didn’t survive long.
Salted caramel custard mini pies
for the graham cracker crust
6 sheets graham crackers (about 1 1/2 heaping cups, when lightly crumbled so they’ll fit in a measuring cup)
2 tablespoons old fashioned oats
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter
for the salted caramel custard
3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or other coarse grain sea salt
1 cup scalded heavy cream
1 cup scalded whole milk
4 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Prepare the graham cracker crusts:
Preheat oven to 350°F
Break up the graham crackers into 1” to 2” chunks and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 10 to 15 times, until the crackers are crumbled into black-bean-sized bits (finely ground crumbs will be present – that’s okay.)
Add the oats, cinnamon and salt, and pulse until the mixture is very coarse. Add the butter, and pulse until combined (the mixture will turn slightly darker).
Divide the crust among four 5” pie pans, or 8 to 10 ounce ramekins. Press firmly into the bottom and partially up the sides.
Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, and allow to cool while you make the custard.
Prepare the salted caramel and the custard:
In a medium (3 to 4 quart) heavy bottomed pan, spread out the sugar evenly, and turn heat to medium. Occasionally give the sugar a stir to check for melting (you’ll see clumps of sugar forming). Once the melting begins, stir the sugar regularly to encourage even heating.
While the sugar heats, whisk the egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.
Eventually – it could take a bit, but don’t rush it by increasing the heat – the sugar will liquefy. Stir frequently until the sugar begins to darken and becomes aromatic. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and salt. (Turn the heat to medium-low.)
Add the hot cream to the caramel and whisk to combine, then add the hot milk, and place the pot back on the heat.
Whisk about 1/3 cup of the hot caramel into the egg yolks until thoroughly mixed (this tempers the eggs and keeps them from cooking into scrambled eggs). Pour the egg mixture into the pot with the caramel mixture and whisk well. Cook until the custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon (swipe your finger across the spoon – it should leave a clear trail that doesn’t fill in). Remove the custard from the heat and allow to cool a bit (recommended: pour the custard into another container to speed cooling).
Assemble: Pour the custard into the pie tins/ramekins, dividing the mixture evenly. Gently lay small sheets of plastic wrap on top of the custard (to prevent a skin from forming). Refrigerate for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight). To serve, top with whipped cream.