In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson wrote, “In the latter part of the 20th century, crème caramel occupied an excessively large amount of territory in European restaurant dessert menus. This was probably due to the convenience, for restauranteurs, of being able to prepare a lot in advance and keep them until needed”.
Now, if I were to nominate a dessert that borders on occupying a similarly large amount of territory in Piedmontese dessert menus, it would have to be crème caramel’s transalpine cousin, the bonet. Both are prepared by beating eggs with sugar and heated milk. Both are poured into caramel-coated moulds and cooked in a bain-marie. Both can be prepared in advance and are extremely convenient for home and professional cooks wanting to whip up components of a multi-course meal before their guests/patrons arrive. The difference: the bonet also includes cocoa and crushed amaretti biscuits. The latter, while baking, float to the top and form a crust which contrasts beautifully with the silky custard cooking gently underneath.
When I first moved to Turin almost 10 years ago, this rich, chocolatey flan was almost invariably the dessert I made sure I left room for when eating out. Looking back though, I was rather naïve about the quality of the offerings served to me. Sure, some chefs were capable of turning out smooth, well-executed examples. But there was also the odd rubbery, coagulated mess. The worst though had to be the one TP immediately recognised as being prepared with a ready-made Elah-Dufour mix from the supermarket. Much like crème caramel, an industry has developed around this dessert in Italy too sadly.
My enthusiasm for this dolce has not been dampened though. In fact, I’m one of those aforementioned home cooks who likes the convenience of preparing in advance. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get things done. And, this is nearly always the dessert I’ll make the day before to conclude a long and lazy weekend meal. I just wish that some of the people who charge money for eating one of Piedmont’s defining desserts would: a. make it properly and; b. not resort to ready-made supermarket mixes. Believe me, a bonet is easier to make than a cake, provided you’re versed in the science behind cooking it.
Like other baked custards, avoiding egg-coagulation is essential to making a bonet with a smooth, silky interior. This is done with an oven-based bain-marie or hot water bath. You won’t need any fancy equipment for this. Simply find a baking dish with high sides and enough room to fit your mould/s. After filling your mould/s with the caramel coating and the custard, pour hot (not boiling) water in the surrounding dish until about two-thirds of the way up the mould/s. Despite an oven temperature of 160 ° C, the water will moderate the oven heat to well below boiling point as it evaporates.
Another important point, this time regarding one of the ingredients. By amaretti, I am referring to those crisp, shatter-in-your-mouth biscuits made with bitter almonds or apricot kernels, whipped egg whites and an addictively high amount of sugar. These macaroon-like morsels are often called tipo Saronno for the town they are thought have originated from in Lombardy. I’m telling you this because there are other biscuits made in Italy with similar ingredients – almonds, eggs whites, and sugar – which are also called amaretti. To avoid confusing these chewy, marzipan-like creations with amaretti di Saronno, people often call them tipo Sassello, for the Ligurian town they are thought to hail from originally. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, please don’t confuse amaretti di Saronno with Amaretto di Saronno. That’s a liqueur infused with the intensely bitter notes of apricot kernels just like amaretti di Saronno. Still confused? Don’t worry, I was for several years until TP made the nomenclature plain to me!
In the recipe below – based on one I learnt at cooking school – I’ve indicated measurements for 8 individual moulds. Let’s just say it’s my way of ensuring I’m not tempted to second or third helpings! You could, however, use one large pudding or loaf tin mould instead. If doing so, you’ll need to extend the cooking time to about an hour. At any rate, use the time indicated below as a guideline, not a rule set in stone. Look out for a set mixture that still has a slight wobble in its centre. Also, a common alternative to the shot of rhum is some strong espresso coffee. It’s simply a matter of personal taste. By adding rhum, you’ll accentuate the sweetness of this flan whereas coffee will offset it slightly. Ognuno il suo gusto (‘Each to their own!’) as they say in Italian!
Ingredients (makes about 8 individual moulds with a 125 mL capacity)
For the caramel coating
- 100 g caster sugar
- 25 g water
- a drop of lemon juice, filtered
For the flan
- 500 mL milk
- 4 eggs
- 125 g sugar
- 40 g unsweetened cocoa powder
- 100 g amaretti biscuits, crushed
- 1 shot rhum
Preheat oven to degrees 160 ° C.
Put caster sugar in a long-handled, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add water and lemon juice. Cook on low to medium heat. Swirl saucepan gently to ensure sugar is cooking evenly. After the sugar dissolves completely and begins boiling, the syrupy liquid will begin to change colour. Continue to cook until the caramel is foaming and a dark amber colour. Quickly distribute caramel inside the moulds, swirling to coat the bases. Leave to cool and set.
Take another heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat milk and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and set aside. In a large mixing bowl whisk whole eggs and sugar together until just combined. Add sieved cocoa powder, crushed amaretti biscuits and rhum. Once well combined, add heated milk and continue to stir gently. Distribute mixture evenly inside the caramel-coated moulds arranged in a baking tray. Fill tray two-thirds of the way up with hot water. Cook in bain-marie for 40-45 minutes or until the mixture in the moulds has set but still has a slight wobble in the centre.
Remove bain-marie from oven and allow to cool completely. Transfer bonet moulds from baking tray, cover and place in the fridge. Allow to set and cool for at least three hours or better yet, overnight. Insert knife between the edge of each mould to make extracting the bonets easier. Place serving dish on top of mould and turn upside down. Carefully lift mould. Serve coated with as much caramel sauce as you can extract from the mould. Buon appetito!