Up until a few years ago I would have told you confidently that I positively disliked crèmes caramels. It seems I wasn’t the only one: unlike their brûléed brethren, they haven’t really remained on restaurant menus in Britain, despite their consistent popularity in their homeland France.
Indeed, chef Raymond Blanc declares the pudding ‘the French national dessert’. So why has it fallen out of fashion over here? Well, I can’t speak for the restaurant industry, but I know that for me, my earliest memories of crème caramel are not fond ones. My introduction to this national pudding was, I’m afraid to say, those little plastic pots that you could buy from French supermarkets: pots that infused the bland, rubbery custard – reminiscent of the milk jelly I hated so much – with a synthetically sweet plastic aroma.
I had to wait until I was 25 to try a proper crème caramel: one with impossibly creamy, real vanilla-speckled custard, and dark smokey caramel, that was just on the right side of bitter. As is often the case, it only took one really great example of the genre for me to realise that in fact, I didn’t dislike them at all. In fact, I loved them.
You can infuse your crème caramel with a host of different flavours: coffee beans, saffron threads, cardamom pods, and orange zest are all popular. But my recipe is for a pretty classic crème caramel recipe, with just vanilla flavouring the custard (if you have good quality vanilla paste, you can use ½ a teaspoon of that and skip the infusing stage).
That said, I will confess to a small cheat in my recipe: the main difference between a crème caramel and a crème brûlée is that the former uses only whole eggs, and the latter just the yolks. That’s why you can turn a crème caramel out, and it will keep its shape, whereas you have to eat a brûlée from the pot. The whites give needed jiggle and natural jelly to the crème caramel – but those extra yolks bring a custardy richness that once I’d tried, I couldn’t resist. It might not be strictly ‘correct’, but it is delightful, and that’s a good enough reason for me.
The key to a good crème caramel is a low, slow cook in the oven, using a water bath to diffuse the heat and cook evenly, ensuring the smoothest of custards. If your custard is at all grainy or curdled, a too-hot oven is almost certainly the culprit. Once cooked, an overnight rest in the fridge is essential: not just because a crème caramel should be cool and soothing to eat, but also so that, during its chilling, the custard steals a little of the caramel flavour, while the caramel itself has time to hydrate into the classic sauce that coats the outside of the custard. A little of the caramel will remain in the pots when you demould – don’t worry about this, you should have plenty of sauce when you turn the pudding out.
Ah, the turning out. Always a moment of anxiety, even for the confident cook. Normally my advice for other dishes which require turning out – blancmanges, bundt cakes, omelettes – is to be brave, to invert swiftly and cross your fingers. Not so here: a judicious wiggle is your best bet. I like to run a knife just around the edge of the ramekin and then gently twizzle (a technical term) and twist the surface of the crème caramel until you can feel that the caramel has released underneath – it may need a little persuasion. Then you can confidently invert and serve your beautiful pudding with pride.
Makes: Serves four
Takes: 15 minutes, plus overnight chilling
Bakes: 45 minutes
For the custard
½ a vanilla pod
200ml whole milk
200ml double cream
2 egg yolks
65g caster sugar
For the caramel
1 tablespoon warm water
- Heat the oven to 140°C/120°C fan. Slice the vanilla pod in half, and scrape out the seeds. Place the milk, cream, vanilla seeds, and vanilla pod in a medium-sized pan and bring to steaming, then set to one side to infuse.
- While the cream infuses, make the caramel. Put the sugar into a pan, place over a medium heat, and allow it to cook: do not stir, but once the sugar has melted, you can swirl the pan to keep the mixture even. Cook until the syrup turns a deep gold, almost mahogany. Carefully pour the water into the caramel – it will spit! Swirl, and briefly return to the heat if necessary to dissolve any lumps. Once smooth, immediately (but carefully!) pour the caramel into four 150ml ramekins. Leave the caramel to set hard (this won’t take long).
- Put the ramekins into a roasting tray, and boil a full kettle. Whisk the whole eggs and yolks with the sugar in a bowl. Sieve the warm milk directly on to the egg and sugar, and whisk gently until combined. Divide the custard between the ramekins.
- Transfer the roasting tin to the oven, and carefully pour water from the kettle into the tin until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 45 minutes, until the custard is just set. Immediately remove the ramekins from the tray and, once cool to the touch, transfer to the fridge overnight.
To serve the crème caramels, run a dinner knife round the inside of each ramekin. Using your finger tips, gently twist the surface of the pudding until you can feel that it has released from the caramel at the base of the dish. Place a plate over the dish, invert and wait for the telltale weight that means that your pudding has turned out. Eat straight away.