Not For the Faint of Heart: Pistachio-Black Pepper Crème Caramel

I usually try to avoid eating out during Restaurant Week. Although there are hypothetically some good deals to be had, I often find the limited menu choices and ubiquity of supplemental charges to be really annoying. Thus, I was a little skeptical back in January when some of my co-workers arranged a Restaurant Week lunch at the Washington Court Hotel. Despite having worked across the street for over six years, I had never set foot in the hotel before. I also had never even heard of the hotel restaurant, Bistro 525.

To my delight, our lunch was good, and I was absolutely blown away by an unusual dessert, a spicy pistachio-black pepper crème caramel. I asked our waiter if there was any way I could get the recipe, and later that afternoon, I received an email from Washington Court Hotel executive chef Mario Raymond spilling the secret to his wonderful creation.

I have to admit, I tried making the recipe in late January shortly after I got it. I made two critical errors that resulted in complete disaster. Not only did I burn the caramel, but I also accidentally splashed water into the custards when they were in the oven. Having failed so spectacularly, I set the recipe aside for a while and I didn't get another chance to try it again until last weekend.

This time, I learned from my prior mistakes. I made a double batch of the pepper caramel so that the larger volume of liquid wouldn't be so quick to burn (but this caramel hardens incredibly fast, so you do have to work like lightening). I also used taller ramekins, put them in the oven in a dry pan, and used a tea kettle to fill the pan with water after it was already on a rack in the oven -- thereby eliminating any splashing that might occur while navigating a heavy pan full of water and custards into the oven. My custards were still completely liquid after baking for 30 minutes. I turned on the oven's convection function and left them in there another 30 minutes -- a little longer than I had intended, but I was busy entertaining guests and sort of forgot about them. They were a little overcooked, but they still ended up with a perfectly smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture.

To unmold the custards, I cut around the edges of each custard with a knife and dipped the bottom of each ramekin in a shallow pan of boiling water for a few seconds. They released easily and looked quite nice.

The custard was super vanilla-y. The recipe calls for 4 entire vanilla beans (both the seeds and the pods), and the the vanilla pretty much eclipsed the pistachio flavor (even though I had let the pistachios sit in the custard overnight before I strained it -- but I did forget to garnish the custards with pistachios like they do in the restaurant). The pepper caramel is super spicy -- definitely not for the faint of heart! The peppercorns that Tom and I regularly use in our kitchen are Penzey's India Special Extra Bold -- a large and particularly pungent tellicherry variety. Also, the pepper grinder I used was set on coarse -- as you can see in the picture above, there are some really large pepper pieces in there. One of our dinner guests actually gave up on eating his custard towards the end, because the heat was too much for him. But if you are into spicy desserts, this might be the one for you! I loved the wonderful contrasts of the creamy sweet custard and the crazy aggressive caramel. Tom declared that this dessert would be the perfect compliment to some Scotch.

We even got a bonus dessert out of this recipe. I only baked five custards, and I had over a pint of chilled custard mixture left over. I put it in the ice cream maker -- tossing in a few chopped pistachios at the end -- and made some truly amazing pistachio ice cream.

Thank so you much Mario, for sharing this recipe with me and letting me post it on the blog!

Pistachio Black Pepper Crème Caramel
from Mario Raymond, Washington Court Hotel executive chef

4 cups milk
1 1/4 cup plus 3 Tablespoons sugar
1 cup chopped pistachios
4 vanilla beans
5 eggs
3 egg yolks

Bring milk, sugar, pistachios and vanilla beans (pods and scraped out seeds) to a simmer. Let the milk sit for 5 minutes. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolks. Slowly add hot milk mixture into the eggs while whisking. It is best to allow the custard to sit overnight with the vanilla beans and pistachios to allow for maximum extraction of flavor; give it at least an hour if you do not have time to do this the day before. Strain.


1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon sugar
3 Tablespoons corn syrup
3 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons ground tellicherry pepper

Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a sauce pan. Cook on medium high heat, covered, for about 5 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook until golden. Swirl the pot occasionally, but do not stir. Remove from heat and add the pepper, stirring to combine. The caramel will foam up, but don't worry -- keep swirling until the foam dissipates. Work quickly from here or the caramel will harden. Pout about 2 oz. of caramel in each of 8 8-oz. ramekins while tilting to cover the bottoms evenly. Let the caramel set.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. When the caramel is hard, fill the ramekins with custard to about 1/2 inch from the top. Bake, covered with foil in a bain-marie (hot water bath, with the water coming at least half way to the top of the ramekins) for 30 minutes. The custards will be just set in the center. You may need to adjust the cooking time as we do these in commercial convection ovens; just check every 5-8 minutes by gently shaking the pan. The custards will just barely wiggle in the center when they are perfectly done. Be careful not to splash the water into the custards.

To serve:
Put ramekins in a pan of very hot water for about 5 minutes. Invert onto a plate. Garnish with chopped pistachios, 2 whole pistachios on top, and 2 raspberries.


Tyler Hewitt said…
That sounds insanely delicious!
Louise said…
That looks incredible, and sounds like a wonderful dessert. I'll have to try it very soon.
Unknown said…
I can confirm that it is insanely delicious, a great dessert pairing with scotch -- and also works just as well (and maybe better) as ice cream....

Louise said…
When I first saw this, I immediately thought of pumpkin flan instead of the vanilla creme caramel. While this taste is still in your memory bank, do you think this would work?
Louise, I think that would be a great combination, especially since pumpkin is easily adaptable to savory or sweet applications to begin with. Happy baking!!