BÔNET ALLA PIEMONTESE
by Gina Depalma
As a pastry chef, people are always curious about what my choice of dessert is when I dine out or entertain. While I readily admit to being a sucker for a good cookie, I have to say that custard always winds up being my top choice. Crème brulee, flan, or even pudding represents dessert heaven to me. There is simply something undeniably comforting about a spoonful of custard.
Considering I am somewhat of a custard connoisseur, it was to my complete surprise that I was recently introduced to a classic custard dessert I had not yet encountered. Bônet is the favorite custard of northern Italy, originating in Piemonte. It is baked in a caramelized ramekin, like a flan, but is much richer and less eggy. What really sets it apart from its creamy counterparts, however, is the addition of crushed amaretti, or almond meringue cookies.
Intrigued, I set out to learn as much about this dessert as possible. It turns out that bônet, pronounced (bow-NET) is regarded as a truly homey dessert, something to be enjoyed at nonna’s house, or at a local, family-run trattoria. There are several variations. The most common version features a layer of melted chocolate on top of the caramelized sugar. Nearly every version found features chocolate in some fashion. Some contained cocoa powder flavoring the custard, while others also featured espresso as a flavor component.
What really makes bônet special is the amaretti crumbs. Added to the custard before baking, they float to the top, forming a sort of “crust” when the custard is flipped over onto the serving plate. The textural contrast between the crumbs and the silky custard is nothing short of sublime.
In setting out to create my own version of this Piemontese classic, I decided to put a familiar coffeehouse twist to the flavor with the addition of some cinnamon to the custard. I have to say my vision of bônet has become one of my very favorite desserts at Babbo.
If you happen to make your own amaretti, perhaps using my recipe from The Babbo Cookbook, you can sacrifice a few to make the crumbs. Otherwise, Amaretti di Saronno, in the familiar red cans and boxes found in Italian specialty shops, will work perfectly. Even though bônet is thought of as a simple, homey dessert, I think it works equally well for a dinner party, especially since they can be baked as much as a day ahead, then unmolded just before serving. If you prefer, serve it with some whipped cream or even a berry compote as garnish.
Preheat the oven to 325F degrees.
To make the custard, whisk together the heavy cream, milk, ¼ cup of the sugar, cinnamon sticks, espresso beans, and the cocoa powder into a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to steep for 30 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, egg, pinch of salt and the remaining ¼ cup of sugar. Remove the cinnamon sticks, then slowly pour the warm milk mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pot, and whisk thoroughly. Strain the custard through a chinois or fine-meshed sieve.
Have ready a bowl of ice water. Prepare the caramel for the ramekins by placing the 2 cups of sugar and the water into a heavy saucepan. Use your finger to moisten the sugar with the water completely; the mixture should resemble wet sand. Place the pan over high heat, bringing the water and sugar to a boil. Continue to cook the sugar until it turns the light golden. Remove the pot from the heat. The caramel should continue to deepen in color after it has been removed from the heat.
When the caramel has turned deep amber, after about 6 minutes, carefully pour about ¼ cup into the ramekins, one at a time. Quickly swirl the caramel halfway up the sides of the ramekin in a circular motion. If there is an excess of caramel in the ramekin, pour it back into the pot. (if you happen to burn your fingers or hand on the caramel, immediately plunge them into the bowl of ice water). Allow the caramel to cool in the ramekins for about 10 minutes.
Arrange the ramekins in a flat-bottomed roasting pan large enough to accommodate them with ¾ inch of space in between. Sprinkle the bottom of the ramekins with 2 heaping tablespoons of the amaretti crumbs. Fill the ramekins with the custard to about 1/8 inch from the top. Create a bain marie, or water bath by adding enough hot water to the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the roasting pan with tin foil, tenting it slightly so that the foil does not touch the top of the custards.
Carefully place the pan in the oven and bake the custards for 35 minutes, then rotate the pan to ensure even baking. Bake them for another 15 minutes, and then check the custards for doneness. The custards are finished when the centers are no longer liquid, but jiggly like gelatin. Depending on your oven, the custards should bake a total of 1 hour, give or take 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, remove the foil, and allow the custards to cool completely in the water bath before transferring them to the refrigerator to chill.
The custards should chill at least 4 hours before serving. To unmold, run the tip of a sharp knife around the edge of the ramekin. Turn it over and shake the ramekin until you feel the custard begin to loosen, then unmold it onto a serving plate, allowing the caramel to pool around each bônet. Serve with softly whipped cream.