This is an ideal dessert for the Thanksgiving holiday dinner and a nice switch on the traditional pumpkin pie. The custards can be baked well in advance, ready for a last-minute caramelizing. If teenagers are present, they will enjoy the task of sprinkling on the sugar topping and watching it caramelize.
Yield: Serves 6
6 tablespoons chopped raw almonds or pecans, toasted (see Notes)
6 large egg yolks
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¾ cup pureed cooked pumpkin or butternut squash
½ cup sour cream
1¼ cups heavy (whipping) cream
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
6 tablespoons oven-dried brown sugar (see Notes) or raw sugar for topping
Have ready the toasted nuts. Preheat the oven to 275°F. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks until pale in color. Whisk in the ½ cup light brown sugar until dissolved. Whisk in the pumpkin, sour cream, heavy cream, cinnamon, ginger, and five-spice powder.
Place six standard-size flan dishes in a baking pan. Divide the custard mixture among the dishes. Sprinkle with the nuts. Pour warm water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the dishes. Bake in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the center of each custard still jiggles slightly. Remove from the oven and lift the dishes from the hot water. Let cool briefly, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
When ready to serve, place the dishes on a baking sheet and evenly sprinkle 1 tablespoon oven-dried brown sugar or raw sugar over each custard. Using a hand-held blowtorch, caramelize the sugar (see Notes).
Toasting Nuts: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until toasted. Transfer the nuts to a bowl.
Caramelizing the Sugar:
Different sugars produce slightly different results when caramelized. Brown sugar tends to melt the quickest, in less than a minute. Superfine and regular granulated sugar melt to form a thin, solid disk. Confectioners’ sugar should be sifted or pressed through a sieve to make an even layer so it will brown evenly. Raw sugars are slower to melt than finer sugars, but produce a nice, even browning.
Oven-Dried Brown Sugar: Due to the moisture content of brown sugar, it is recommended to dry it before caramelizing. Spread light or dark brown sugar out on a baking sheet in a 1/8-inchlayer and bake in a preheated 275°F oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until browned a shade darker. Let cool, place in a small resealable plastic bag, and crush it thoroughly with a rolling pin or flat metal mallet to make fine crystals. Brown sugar treated in this manner has an excellent flavor when caramelized.
The amount of sugar you use to caramelize the top can vary with personal taste and the diameter of the dish. If you use flan dishes, which have a wider diameter, 1 tablespoon of sugar is a good amount for each dish. With a 6-ounce or smaller ramekin, which has a 4-inch or less diameter, about 2 teaspoons of sugar will cover the surface nicely.
When caramelizing the sugar topping of dessert cremes brulees under a broiler, you may prefer to place the containers in a pan and fill the pan with cold water and ice to come halfway up the sides of the dishes. This keeps the containers from overheating, and you can serve the desserts immediately (rather than refrigerating them briefly to cool).