Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American
Growing up, I didn’t always love Christmas. Shopping for a family of Norwegians was an annual challenge, Dad was a little bit Grinchy about the whole holiday, and sometimes our family gathering on Julaften felt so unchanging that it may as well have been scripted. Plus, I never liked lutefisk (I know, I’m sorry!), so I’d usually end up eating some ravioli or something for the main course. Bah humbug!
But there was always at least one thing I could count on: dessert. At the end of the evening, after opening all our presents from the family and julenissen, Tante Lise would brew some coffee, and we’d sit down around the most important part of the meal—karamellpudding (caramel custard).
Grinch or Christmas-lover, everyone could agree that the caramel custard was a pure delight. If that part of the evening had a script, it would go like this:
Mom: I hope it came out okay this year!
Everyone else: too busy experiencing food nirvana from the perfect-as-always caramel custard to formulate a response.
Sometimes, things not changing can be a good thing.
The caramel custard had always been the most important part of Christmas Eve for my family. I grew up just assuming that it was a typisk norsk holiday dessert, as much a part of the holiday as lutefisk and krumkake. (Five years into the all-Norway-all-the-time experience of editing The Norwegian American, no one else has ever mentioned eating karamellpudding at Christmastime, though, so I’m starting to wonder! Readers, if this is a thing in your family, will you let me know?)
Back in the day, Tante Aslaug (my farmor’s sister) was the one who brought the karamellpudding to our family celebration, and everyone agreed that it was the best part of the meal. But Aslaug returned to Norway, and she took her recipe with her. She absolutely refused to share the secret. For all I know, she took it to her grave.
It fell to Mom to re-create the essential dessert. She started with a recipe for “Crème Renversée” from Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts. Mom’s well-worn copy of the 1982 book falls open to this page, notes written into the margins telling of the process of adaptation.
Primarily it was a question of milks. The original recipe’s call for milk and light cream produced a result that was by far not rich enough. Mom can’t remember how many tries to took to get the ratio right, but she knows that when she hit on this one it was unanimous: she’d done it.
For however many years she’s been making the custard, Mom has been doubling the recipe for the caramel portion—and that is the version I’ve included here—but just in the last couple of years a hot tip from Martha Stewart led her to change things up a little. According to Stewart, using a metal pan is essential for these kinds of recipes, allowing the caramel to release from the sides more easily.
So Mom switched from the glass baking dish she’d always used, and the results are pretty amazing. There’s almost too much caramel now. We debated putting it back to a single portion for this recipe, and you can just cut that part in half if that’s what you want. But is there really such a thing as too much caramel? The perfect amount is probably somewhere in between the original and the double, but that math gets a bit complicated. So just make sure your serving dish has a good rim on it to catch the beautiful caramel that will come gushing out, and if there’s too much you can suck some off the plate with a turkey baster like we did with the test custard she and I made this November.
I’m not exactly a master chef, so I’d been daunted by the idea of making a custard, but as long as you follow the recipe, this custard will turn out perfect every time—it always has for us.
Whatever your holiday traditions are, I wish you a season as sweet as can be. God jul!
As Good as Tante Aslaug’s Karamellpudding
1½ cups granulated sugar
6 tbsps. water
¼ tsp. cream of tartar
1 cup half & half
1 cup whipping cream
1½ cups whole milk
4 eggs plus 4 egg yolks (large or extra-large)
½ cup granulated sugar
3⁄4 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch of salt
to make the caramel:
Place the sugar, water, and cream of tartar in a saucepan over moderate heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture comes to a boil. Let boil without stirring until the mixture barely begins to caramelize—this should take about 8 minutes. For those of you who are novices like me, this means that it just starts to turn (duh) caramel colored. If it starts to darken in one spot, twirl the pan or stir the mixture. It’s a thin line between too pale (flavorless) and too dark (burnt and bitter). You want a rich, golden look.
When the syrup is the perfect color, pour it into a metal pan or mold. Using potholders, pick up the pan or mold and tilt it gently in all directions to make the caramel spread over the bottom of the pan and as far up the sides as you dare—remembering that the hot caramel will burn you like napalm, so don’t let it touch your skin. Do this until the caramel cools enough to stop running, and set aside.
If you’re using a mold with a center tube, you will not be able to get the caramel to coat that part, and that, according to the original recipe, is okay. When the caramel cools, butter the central tube to make it easier to unmold. I have not used this type of mold, so I can’t vouch for this.
to make the custard:
Adjust a rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat to 350°F.
Scald the half & half, whipping cream, and milk in an uncovered saucepan over moderate heat just until a slight skin forms on top or tiny bubbles form around the edge.
Start some water heating for a water bath.
Meanwhile (or before scalding the milk if you’re concerned about your egg skills), in a large mixing bowl, stir the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and salt to mix thoroughly. Do not beat until light and foamy. Tempting as it is, it’s best not to use a stand mixer for this, as it tends to froth the eggs.
When the assorted milks are scalded, pour them very gradually at first into the egg mixture—too fast and the hot milk can cook the eggs! Stir as you go to mix it.
Strain the custard into another bowl or pitcher to remove lumps. Place the caramelized pan or mold into a larger pan (we used a turkey pan), then pour the custard carefully into the pan or mold. Finally, carefully pour your hot water into the larger pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the mold or pan.
Transfer the whole shebang into the oven (or assemble it right on the oven rack if you’re the particularly clumsy type, like me). Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a small, sharp knife gently inserted into the custard comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 or 10 minutes. Then, carefully remove the mold or pan from the water bath and let it cool uncovered at room temperature. Refrigerate 3 to 4 hours or overnight.
Do not unmold the custard any earlier than you need to. If needed, carefully cut around the edges of the custard to free it. Ours was freely floating on the caramel, so we skipped that step. Invert it onto your serving platter, making sure that the platter you intend to use has a decent rim on it. This recipe makes a lot of caramel, and it can overflow.
Serves … let’s say 8? It’s rich, but so delicious that even after a big juleaften meal and cookies my small family sometimes polishes off the whole thing.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.