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Butterscotch Pots de Crème


6 servings


About 40 minutes start to finish, plus at least a few hours for chilling


Like the base of a crème brûlée, this pot de crème is made of egg yolks, sugar, and cream. Like crème brûlée, it is suave and smooth with a dark sugar mystique and a luxurious mouthfeel. Like crème brûlée, it is French. But unlike crème brûlée, the dark sugar is not a crust to break, but a flavor suffused throughout. It is butterscotch.

To conjure butterscotch is to tug the threads of memory—the memory of a sweet mahogany sauce falling in pleats over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The memory of hot pudding scraped from saucepan into pie crust, chilled, and swaddled with meringue. The memory of crinkly cellophane and a small, hard candy that melted in the mouth to a thin coin swirling with seductive flavor. Butterscotch is the taste of brown sugar, butter, and cream touched by a scorch.

Americans may deem butterscotch a child of their own creation, but butterscotch is thought to have been born in Scotland—a boiled candy made of muscovado sugar and butter. Muscovado and demerara, the brown sugars favored by Europeans, are granular in form and achieve their flavor from the molasses still-present in the raw sugar. American brown sugar, on the other hand, is made from refined white sugar crystals mixed with molasses syrup. Dark brown sugar has more molasses than light.

We love butterscotch. Full stop. Real butterscotch: brown sugar, butter, and cream.

But a chilled dessert like pot de crème is unfavorably impacted by the addition of butter. The butter was dismissed, and the butterscotch flavor hung on. We then addressed a couple of other issues. Dark brown sugar, which we had chosen for its color depth amid such a high proportion of cream, introduced a jarring molasses ping to the palate and expressed excessive sweetness. A butterscotch sauce intended for ice cream could minimize this by using light brown sugar, and the inherent sweetness of butterscotch plays off well against ice cream—but in a custard? Not so much. Replacing a percentage of dark brown sugar in the recipe with cooked caramel brought the color of the custards to a rich hue and their sweetness down to the perfect register.

Baking Notes

Delicate egg and cream combos like this set up best when heat-shielded in a water bath. We poached our first custards in a half-full water bath, but the cream set unevenly. The entire custard base needed to be almost fully immersed in water for even cooking. When pouring boiling water into the baking dish, make sure the ramekins are about three-fourths submerged.

Internal temperature is a crucial indicator of doneness for the custards. For the silkiest, most covetable finished texture, remove the baking dish from the oven when the custards have just reached 170 degrees. The recipe’s broad range of baking times is based on variable oven temperatures.

The texture of the custards is optimal the first day. After a couple of days, they become firmer.

equipment mise en place

For this recipe, you will need a digital kitchen scale, 9 by 13-inch baking dish; six 8-ounce ramekins; a teakettle to boil water; a heavy-bottomed small saucepan; a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan; a whisk; a silicone spatula; a 1-quart liquid measuring cup; a smallish ladle; a fine-mesh strainer; a digital instant-read thermometer; a wire rack; and a handheld mixer.

  • for the custards:

    • 1.5
      ounces granulated sugar
    • 1
      ounce spring or filtered water
    • 20
      ounces heavy cream
    • Generous ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
    • 3
      ounces dark brown sugar, rubbed free of lumps
    • 5
      ounces (about 8 large) egg yolks
    • 1
      teaspoon vanilla extract
  • for serving:

    • 4
      ounces cold heavy cream
    • 2
      teaspoons granulated sugar
    • ½
      teaspoon vanilla extract

    Pour hot water from the kettle into the baking dish until the water reaches three-fourths up the sides of the ramekins. Carefully slide the baking dish onto the oven rack and bake until the center of each custard registers 170 degrees on a digital instant-read thermometer, 17 to 30 minutes (begin checking the temperature after 15 minutes).


    Make the custards: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with a triple layer of paper towels or a folded kitchen towel. Arrange six 8-ounce ramekins in the baking dish and set aside. Fill a teakettle with water and bring the water to a simmer.


    In a very clean, heavy-bottomed small saucepan, combine the sugar and water—do not stir—and set the pan over medium-low heat. When the water begins to bubble gently, swirl the pan to help dissolve the sugar. Cover the pan, lower the heat, and continue cooking. After 2 or 3 minutes, uncover and swirl again. After the sugar has fully dissolved, the syrup will eventually color around the edges.


    While the sugar is cooking, combine the cream and salt in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Turn off the heat, add the brown sugar, and whisk to dissolve. Cover the pan to keep the cream mixture warm.


    Continue cooking the sugar syrup until it is a rich mahogany color, 2 or 3 minutes more. Immediately pour the caramel into the hot cream, scraping it with a silicone spatula. Vigorously whisk to dissolve any hardened caramel; set the pan over low heat if needed. Remove from the heat. In a 1-quart liquid measuring cup, whisk the egg yolks to combine them.


    One small ladle at a time, whisk hot cream into the yolks to temper them. After several ladlefuls of cream, pour the hot cream–yolk mixture back into the saucepan and whisk well, then whisk in the vanilla. Set a fine-mesh strainer over the now-empty measuring cup and pour the mixture into the strainer. Divide the custard base evenly among the ramekins.


    Remove the baking dish from the oven and let the custards cool in the water bath for 15 minutes, then transfer them directly to the rack. If, however, the custards’ temperature exceeded 170 degrees, transfer the ramekins to the rack immediately after removing them from the oven. Let cool for 30 minutes, then cover the custards and refrigerate until fully chilled, at least 4 hours or up to 2 days.


    Just before serving: In a medium bowl with a handheld mixer, whip the cream, sugar and vanilla to medium-soft peaks. Pipe or spoon the whipped cream onto the chilled custards and serve with one or two cigarette wafers (or tuiles) alongside.