Every spring, I’m obsessed with the beautiful pastel colors blooming in the garden, and I somehow want to capture all the beauty and intoxicating scents of spring. Lilacs are one of my favorites because they have such a wonderfully sweet, nostalgic perfume, and I have so many good memories associated with them from Louisa May Alcott’s old-fashioned novel Under the Lilacs that I read when I was very young to my best friend and I crossing the street to the historic church in front of our Tudor-style dorm Manor House to cut fresh lilac sprigs to decorate and scent our room. Lilacs hold a special significance for me too, for a different reason: lilacs thrive here in Minnesota and other parts of North America, yet these beautiful plants come from the rocky hillsides and moors of Southern Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and Korea. It’s amazing that they are half a world away from their native lands, and yet, lilacs are so resilient that they have fully adapted and thrived here in North America. These plant immigrants are, in a way, not so different from me. They came from faraway lands, took root, and have found that Minnesota’s cold winters and hot summers fit them perfectly and have made themselves at home.
I have been wanting to use the delicate floral flavor of lilacs for awhile now. In the past I have used them to make lilac sugar, lilac syrup, and lilac shortbread, and I have used the sprigs and flowers to decorate cakes. This time I wanted to incorporate them into sweetened whipped cream to elevate this simple recipe with the floral scent of lilacs. I thought it would be delicious and unique, and it would be best paired with the decadent earthiness of bittersweet chocolate, and chocolate pots de crème are one of those simple yet elegant desserts that balance creamy, bitter, and sweet flavors. Besides, it’s a perfect culinary metaphor for spring: the dark, earthy base of the chocolate custard is the soil from which the lilac cream springs into bloom.
My pots de crème recipe has a method that is fairly classic, relying on heating up the cream and milk and then adding all the other ingredients and baking it in a bain marie. It’s really simple, so don’t be intimidated by the word pots de crème. It really just means chocolate pudding for grown-ups! In France, pots de crème are really popular, and we know how the French love their dairy products. They have a whole range of custard desserts, like flan, yogurts, all kinds of custards, and of course, pots de crème; but in the US, for some reason, they don’t receive so much attention as other French custard desserts like crème brulee. The term pots de crème comes from using petits pots, or little pots, and they can be porcelain ramekins, metal pastry dishes or tart dishes, miniature canning jars, or other oven-safe vessels. I originally made them in ramekins for a dinner party, but I’ve also made them in mini canning jars so that I can take them to a picnic or pack them in a lunchbox or store them with lids in the refrigerator to make them last a few days longer. They are so rich that they are best served in small sizes. They are a very creamy and satisfying indulgence. A 4-ounce ramekin or 2-ounce canning jars are what I used. A few notes on the ingredients: because this dessert relies on the simplest ingredients, it is important to use quality chocolate and cream. I don’t typically call for special chocolates in my recipes, but in this case I strongly encourage you to use the blend of chocolates in the recipe because it balances the bitterness and sweetness just so. I would stay away from using chocolate chips, because they tend to have emulsifiers that downgrade the quality of the chocolates, and the chips don’t melt as well as bars do, so I would stick to chocolate bars; and if you’re in a pinch, just use extra-bitter high-quality chocolates, like 70% Lindt or Ghirardelli. When I first tested this recipe, they turned out too bitter. The second time, I also noticed that the texture became too firm after refrigeration. So I adjusted the proportions of cream and milk, and my recommendation is to enjoy them warm or at room temperature so you really can dip your spoon into those soft pockets of chocolate pudding lying under the surface, which I think is truly the best part of a pot de crème. I know it might sound like the recipe calls for a lot of bitter chocolate, but trust me, it’s just the right amount of dark and sweet. Daniel was my taste-tester, and he usually does not like dark chocolate, yet he was very happy with the balance of flavors of this one. You get the richness of the bitter and extra-bitter chocolate and find yourself chainsg the sweetness of the sugar as you finish your bite. If you don’t want to use lilac-infused whipped cream, you could always top them with a little bit of flaky salt or crème fraiche, and that works really well too.
When looking for fresh lilacs, look for them in hedges and sunny spots. Of course, I always encourage people to plant their own if they can! I planted my first lilac bush two summers ago. But if you don’t have a garden, you’ll find there is usually an abundance of them in your neighborhood, even in urban locations like Minneapolis. Yes, lilac season is a short-lived delight that can last a week or two, but the good news is you’re not really restricted to just May. Because there are multiple varieties, you can stretch your lilac season by picking Hyacinth Lilacs early in May, Common Lilacs and Meyer Lilacs mid-season, and Japanese Lilacs in June. I recommend cutting stems early in the morning and, if possible, to use your blossoms the same day. Choose lilac blooms that have just opened and aren’t turning brown. Choosing branches with a few buds unopened is OK. When using lilacs, immerse the stems in cool water and keep them out of direct sunlight. For this recipe, you will need 3 cone clusters of flowers, and you’ll have to remove the leaves and gently pluck each individual blossom from their stem. Make sure you don’t include the green part of the stem, or it will give your baked goods a bitter flavor.
I hope you will try this recipe when you need a great and elegant dessert for a dinner party or a special touch for a dinner at home. They can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days, so it’s really practical and I promise you, after a bite of these, you will truly graduate from pudding heaven to grown-up pudding Nirvana!
Chocolate Pots de Crème with Lilac Cream
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
For the Pots de Crème:
- 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 1 oz unsweetened chocolate
- 3 oz bittersweet (62%) chocolate
- 1 oz extra bittersweet (70%) chocolate
- 5 egg yolks
- 6 tbsp cane sugar
- ¼ tsp ground vanilla
- 1/8 tsp kosher salt
For the Lilac Cream Topping:
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 sprigs lilac flowers, fresh, about 5 inches in length each
- ¼ cup powder sugar
For the Pots de Crème:
- Pre-heat the oven to 300°F. Prepare a large roasting pan and 6 oven-safe ramekins.
- In a large pot, pour 1 quart of water and heat it up until it reaches a boiling point. This water will be used for the bain marie later on.
- While the water heats up, in a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream and milk and cook over medium heat until just boiling.
- Turn the heat off and add the unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, and extra bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces.
- Stir the chocolate and cream until the chocolate has melted and is incorporated into the mixture. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, beat the egg yolks, cane sugar, salt, and vanilla powder.
- Slowly add ½ cup of the chocolate cream mixture gradually into the warm yolk mixture until well combined. This is to temper the yolks. Stir well with a fork or whisk.
- Continue adding the remaining chocolate cream mixture until all of the mixture has been incorporated.
- Using a fine mesh sieve, strain the custard into the saucepan and warm up the mixture gradually, cooking until it reaches a thin pudding consistency.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the chocolate custard into the ramekins in the prepared roasting pan.
- Place the roasting pan in the center of the oven an pour the water you have boiled into the roasting pan so that it surrounds the ramekins and reaches about halfway up the sides.
- Bake the pots de crème in your preheated oven for 30 minutes. The pots de crème will be ready when the tops are set but there is a little bit of jiggle in the center. If there is a large wave that ripples through the custard when you shake them, they need more baking.
- Remove the roasting pan from the oven and let the pots de crème cool in the pan until the water reaches room temperature. Then remove them from the roasting pan and transfer them to a cooling rack.
- Store the pots de crème in the refrigerator and chill for a minimum of 2 hours before serving.
For the Lilac Cream Topping:
- In a clean jar, pour the ½ cup heavy cream and the individual flowers from 2 lilac sprigs, about 5 inches long each. Be patient—it does take some time to pluck the individual blossoms from a branch, but it can be a Zen moment. It’s very soothing.
- Use a spoon to push the lilac blossoms down to completely submerge them in the heavy cream. Cover the jar and refrigerate for 24 hours.
- The next morning, pour the cream through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl that has been previously chilled and beat using an electric mixer on high speed for about 1 minute, until soft peaks form.
- Add the powdered sugar and beat for 2-4 more minutes, or until stiff peaks form. Do not over-beat! Or it will become the consistency of butter.
- Spoon the whipped cream on top of each individual pot de crème and garnish with additional lilac flowers.
© 2021 Carol’s Baking Adventures