'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Crème caramel - plain and caffeinated

There're certain dishes that I often associate with individual people around me. It's usually because of a person's love of a dish - or in some cases aversion to a dish - that gives me this association. I used to have a Taiwanese friend here in Cincinnati called Willy who absolutely loved all kinds of baked custards - custard tart, crème caramel, crème brûlée, etc. Initially, I was secretly shocked by how much he loved his custards especially since he didn't have a sweet tooth in general. He was also something of a purist in the sense that preferred pure eggy custards to flavoured ones. I really treasured Willy's friendship but he moved back to Taiwan a while ago. I continue to think of the time I spent with him and his friends in Cincinnati even though I cannot bake these custards again for him for some time.

Crème caramel is wonderfully simple to make but yields maximum deliciousness. You make a caramel, pour it onto individual ramekins, add custard on top and bake the ramekins in a water-bath in the oven. After a good chill in the fridge, you run a knife round the edges and invert the whole thing to serve so that the caramel (which by then has re-liquefied) runs seductively around the custard. It's amazing how a little caramel could elevate a simple baked custard to undreamt-of heights.

I'm offering two versions here: plain and coffee-flavoured. For the plain version, I use extra egg yolks to boost the custardy flavour; for the coffee version, I replace part of the milk with strong espresso and stick with whole eggs. It's really worth seeking the best eggs and milk you can find for the plain version. In either case, I've kept the sugar in the custard to a minimum since the caramel sweetens it plenty anyway.

Incidentally, it seems that people in the States don't really know these custards by their French name 'crème caramel'. I've always called them crème caramel and my friends always give me a bewildered look for that. Apparently 'flan' is how they're known here, like in Latin countries.

A few observations:

1. It's better to bake these custards in the lower third of the oven. In the past when I baked them in the centre of the oven, the top half of the custards was overbaked and wasn't as smooth as the part that was submerged in the water. You want heat to be away from the custards as much as you can.

2. You can steam these custards rather than bake them if you wish. If you decide to go down this route, make sure that you cover each ramekin with cling film / plastic wrap before steaming or the texture will be rough.

3. Gentle baking is the key to a smooth baked custard. After the initial 10 minutes at 180C/350F, I turn the heat down to 130C/250F which is a lower temperature than most recipes. This gentler temperature ensures that the custards emerge smooth and creamy.

4. The caramel will harden upon contact with the cold ramekins. If you're really picky about getting perfectly caramel-filled bottoms, you can preheat the ramekins (in the roasting tin) in the oven first so that they'll be warm when you pour the caramel on them. Even if your caramel doesn't cover the entire surface of the base, remember it will liquidy eventually to cover the entire base (or top) by the time you serve them.

5. I like to pour fridge-cold milk into the saucepan you made the caramel with to dissolve any stubborn bits of caramel that stayed on the pan. This isn't just frugality, but adds an extra something in the flavour of the custard itself. This also conveniently warms up the milk every so slightly to shorten the baking time.

Crème caramel

Plain version

500ml (2 cups) whole milk, at room temperature
3 eggs and 2 yolks
30g (2 tbsp) sugar

Coffee version

375ml (1 1/2 cups) whole milk, at room temperature
125ml (1/2 cup) very strong espresso, at room temperature
4 eggs
35g (2 tbsp + 1 tsp) sugar


50g (3 tbsp) granulated sugar
1 tbsp water
Tiny pinch of salt

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 180C/350F.

Start off by setting six 125ml (4 oz.) ramekins in a roasting tin that can hold them comfortably. Heat the sugar, salt with the water in a small saucepan with the lid on. When the mixture reaches a boil, remove the lid and tilt the pan in circular motions to make sure that it cooks evenly. The colour will gradually turn from white to a pale golden, at which point you'd want to turn the heat down, and continue to cook until the caramel is an amber colour. (I do like my caramel quite dark and on the bitter side but you can have it lighter if you wish). Once the caramel has reached your desired colour, remove it from the heat and pour the hot caramel onto the individual ramekins evenly - be careful! It'll harden upon contact with the ramekins.

Pour the milk into the saucepan you made the caramel in and leave it off the heat.

For the custard, mix the eggs with the sugar in a large bowl, and combine them until smooth with a wire whisk. The goal is to mix rather than aerate them.. Now add the milk (and coffee if attempting the coffee version) gradually to the eggs, whisking as you go with your other hand. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve to remove any bits of eggs if you wish.

I was making a double batch of these. Ideally you would want to use ramekins of the same size...

Now use a ladle to divide the custard evenly among the ramekins. Add hot tap water to fill halfway up the height of the custard, put the whole roasting tin in to the oven and bake at the preheated temperature of 180C/350F for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 130C/250F for another 20 minutes or so, until the mixture is set and only barely jiggles when you give it a gentle shake.

Remove the roasting tin from the oven and then remove the ramekins from the water bath. Chill thoroughly in the fridge after they've reached room temperature. Right before serving, run a knife around the edges, put a bigger bowl or plate on top and invert in one go. No accompaniments are necessary - or maybe a few segments of oranges.

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