Japan has been in love with yōgashi (Western-style sweets and desserts) for centuries.
It started from the very first contact with the Portuguese in the 16th century, from whom the Japanese adopted the castella sponge cake (kasutera), as well as confetti-shaped sugar candy (konpeito). The pace of yōgashi adoption accelerated once the nation reopened to outside contact in the 19th century.
Vanilla custard-based sweets have been especially embraced. Today, there are a number of custard-based snacks in Japan that are either unique or far more common than they are in their land of origin, such as the cream pan, a small soft roll filled with thick custard, and the cream cornet, a horn-shaped bread filled with the same custard. Choux pastries filled with custard are also widely available, as are eclairs.
The most popular type of custard sweet is arguably the caramel custard pudding or caramel flan. The first mention of this sweet in writing dates back to 1872, the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), where it is called a poddingu in the “Seiyo Ryori-tsu” (“Connoisseur of Western-style Cooking”). This seems to have been based on the French creme renversee, or creme caramel, even though the name “poddingu” was derived from the English “pudding.” Over the years the words “poddingu” and “puddingu” evolved to become “purin,” which is what the sweet is called today.
Like all dairy products, purin remained a luxury food until after World War II. In 1946, the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama was used as the temporary headquarters for the Allied Occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur. The hotel chefs came up with an over-the-top version of the caramel custard pudding where it formed the centerpiece of a large glass dish loaded with fresh fruit, ice cream and whipped cream. Called purin a la mode, it was a hit with the Americans. Nowadays, purin a la mode is widely available at family restaurants and although it is now considered somewhat old fashioned, at the time it was the ultimate luxurious dessert.
Purin wasn’t made in ordinary households until the 1960s, when ready-mix custard powders, which contained gelatin, became available and milk became affordable. But purin really took off when premade versions appeared. For instance, Glico’s Pucchin Purin, introduced in 1972, featured an innovative way of cleanly inverting the purin onto the plate by introducing air through a small tape-covered hole in the bottom of the plastic. Today, purin cups are available at every supermarket and convenience store and come in many flavors.
In the past decade, the vanilla-caramel purin has become fashionable once more. Creamy, luxurious versions in small jars have become trendy snacks sold by patisseries and speciality shops: People line up for hours to purchase popular premium purin.
This recipe is for that kind of rich, soft pudding. It’s quite easy to make at home, and you don’t have to worry about unmolding it, either. Use the best milk and cream you can buy, and definitely use a real vanilla bean for flavoring.
Recipe: How to make rich and creamy caramel custard pudding in a jar
Prep: 20 mins., cook 15 to 20 mins., plus cooling time
Makes six 160-milliliter jars
For the caramel sauce:
80 grams granulated sugar
30 milliliters cold water
30 milliliters hot water
For the custard:
1 vanilla bean
400 milliliters whole milk
80 grams granulated sugar
4 large eggs
200 milliliters heavy cream
1. You will need six heatproof glass jars. Clean, empty jam jars work.
2. Make the caramel sauce. Put 80 grams sugar and cold water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the sugar mixture is medium to dark brown in color. The darker it gets, the more bitter it will be, which some prefer. (Just don’t let it get too dark.) Add the hot water (watch out for splatters) and shake the pan to mix. Pour the caramel into the jars.
3. Put the milk and vanilla bean in a small saucepan. Heat until it’s just bubbling around the edges, and then turn the heat down very low. Simmer (the surface of the milk should just barely move) for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the vanilla bean to infuse in the milk for another 15 minutes.
4. Beat the eggs in a large bowl with chopsticks or a whisk, but don’t let the mix foam up. Add the sugar and mix well, then add the cream and the infused milk. Continue mixing until the sugar is dissolved. (Remove the vanilla bean, wipe it off and store sealed in a jar in the refrigerator; you can use it a few more times until it loses its aroma.) Pass the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve then pour it into the jars.
5. Cover the jars with foil and put them into a pan. Fill the pan with water until the jars are half submerged. Heat the pan over medium heat until the water is just bubbling, and cook for about five minutes. Cover the pan, take off the heat and leave the custard to cook with residual heat for another 10 to 15 minutes.
6. Leave the jars to cool down to room temperature, then refrigerate for a few hours before serving.
7. Alternatively, you can cook the pudding in a microwave without a pan. Simply cover the jars loosely with microwave-safe cling film and microwave at 200 watts for 15 minutes. Check to see if the custards are set by tilting one jar gently. If it’s still too liquid, keep microwaving for one-minute intervals until set. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate as above.