This silky, gently set custard with the right amount of warmth from toasted spices and sharpness from caramelised sugar is a perfect way to welcome the cooling weather of autumn. In this recipe, a fragrant combination of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg known as sweet hawaij adds an autumnal aroma. Sweet hawaij, which is found in cooking across North Africa and the Middle East, is commonly added to hot coffee, and is also used in desserts and sweets. Trusting your senses will give you the best results here: notice the aroma of the spices as they gently toast; watch the sugar deepen to a golden amber as it caramelises, and see how the custard slowly jiggles in its water bath once it is set. The reward is a treat to end a meal or a perfect bite to enjoy with a cup of black coffee
1. Place a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the sweet hawaij and toast, stirring often, until the spices become fragrant and darken slightly in colour, about 30 seconds. Keep the heat on medium and pour in the heavy cream. Heat the cream, stirring occasionally, until steam begins to rise from the surface, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the spices to steep, about 10 minutes.
2. Set out a 22cm (9-inch) round cake pan. Heat a separate small saucepan over medium until a drop of water sizzles on the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low. Make a dry caramel by adding 150g of sugar to the pan in an even layer. The sugar will gradually begin melting into a syrup. If it browns immediately, your pan is too hot and the heat should be turned down to low. Allow the sugar to melt, stirring in any dry spots with a heat-safe spatula, about 2 minutes. As the crystals melt, the syrup will change colour from light to golden brown, about another 4 minutes. Once the sugar has melted, continue to stir and cook the syrup until it’s a light amber colour and smoke begins to rise from the surface of the caramel, 2 minutes more. Immediately pour the caramel into the bottom of the cake pan and swirl the pan to evenly coat it with caramel. Allow the caramel to cool completely.
3. Heat the oven to about 176°C. Prepare a water bath in a large roasting pan by filling it a third of the way up with room-temperature water. Place the roasting pan in the middle rack of the oven as it heats.
4. In a medium bowl use a whisk to gently combine the egg yolks and the remaining 150g of sugar. Add the salt and pour in the steeped heavy cream while gently stirring. (You want to incorporate as little air as possible, so be careful not to whisk too hard.) Add the milk, then pass the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. You can do this directly into the pan with the caramel, keeping the sieve just above the pan to minimise bubbles on the surface of the custard.
5. Transfer the pan to the water bath and cover the entire pan and water bath with aluminium foil. Bake for 50 minutes. The edges of the custard will just be starting to set and the centre will still jiggle loosely at this point when the pan is moved back and forth. Remove the foil and bake until the custard is set and the centre jiggles only slightly when the pan is moved back and forth, 20 to 25 minutes more.
6. Remove the pan from the water bath and let cool to room temperature. Move to the refrigerator and cool completely until the custard is set and firm, 8 to 12 hours. To serve, run a knife along the edges of the custard to loosen. To loosen the bottom, place the pan on a warm kitchen towel for about 30 seconds. Put a serving platter (large enough to hold the custard and caramel sauce) on top of the pan and invert: Be confident and do this action in one fluid motion without hesitating. The custard should slip easily on to the serving platter with the caramel sauce pooling nicely around it.
Tip: For the ground sweet hawaij blend, you can buy a pre-mixed blend or make your own by combining 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon ground clove — This recipe originally appeared in The New York Times