Crème de la crème
I quite like the French name for crème caramel – crème renversée au caramel. It literally refers to cooking it and then tipping it upside down to turn it out from its cake form. I like that it’s so matter of fact, so honest.
It’s a dessert where you make the sauce first and put it in the base. It holds its place but it also stains the custard and turns it the most gorgeous sauternes colour. Which is also a great thing to drink with this dish.
I get most of my culinary history from The Oxford Companion to Food. Alan Davidson, who edited it, is a beautiful writer and the book is a one-stop shop for chefs wanting to know where food came from.
The history of the crème caramel is interesting: it has a relationship to a Latin American flan, flan de leche. Anywhere the Spanish, French or Portuguese have been over the years, the flan has gone with them. Sometimes it is made with condensed milk, sometimes with fresh milk – whatever is available locally.
I got this version from my Aunty Carmel. She cooks it every Christmas and this Christmas past I asked her for the recipe. She sent it through and it came from a 1970s Women’s Weekly cookbook. It is bulletproof. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the Women’s Weekly’s recipe, it’s Aunty Carmel’s. Recipes are like that.
The only really tricky thing is having the confidence to let the caramel turn quite dark before pouring it into the forms. More often than not I’ve seen crème caramels with a light-stained custard, but it needs that bitterness of slightly burnt caramel to offset the sweetness of the custard. I think that’s this dessert’s triumph: that bittersweet balance of flavours.
One of the reasons for the popularity of the crème caramel – the thing that, more than invading Spaniards and Portuguese, has made it ubiquitous – is the fact restaurant kitchens can prepare the dish in advance without compromising it. We did a version last summer where we added some sauternes to the caramel before cooking. The following day, when serving, we peeled an impossibly ripe white peach to slice and place alongside it dressed with caramel. It was as perfect in summer as it is in winter.
Texturally, I think crème caramel is one of the best desserts. I’ve had versions set with gelatin in bad cafés and it’s a terrible alternative. It’s the slow baking of the custard – the cooking of the egg yolk – that gives it that velvet finish. It can quite easily be set in small forms, but I do like cooking it as a large flan to share.
Turning it out is a little more risky than with small portions, but I think the drama of the big crème caramel brought to the table is worth it.
For the best results, it is important to cook the crème caramel the day before serving.
– 160g sugar
– 150ml water
– 430ml milk
– 300ml cream
– ½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped, or ½ tsp real vanilla paste
– 6 eggs
– 75g castor sugar
For the caramel, combine sugar and water in a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Stop stirring and continue to boil rapidly until the mixture turns golden brown.
Pour the caramel into a round, 20-centimetre x five-centimetre cake tin. Holding the pan with a cloth, quickly tilt it to coat the base evenly with the caramel.
For the custard, lightly whisk the eggs, vanilla and sugar in a stainless steel bowl.
Combine the milk and cream in a pan, bring to the boil and remove from the heat. Gradually whisk the hot milk into the egg mixture. Leave the custard to rest for a minute before pouring the custard through a fine strainer over the caramel.
Place the cake tin in a roasting tray and pour enough boiling water in the tray to come halfway up the side of the pan. Bake in a moderately slow oven (about 140ºC) for about 40 minutes or until the custard is just set; it will firm more as it cools.
Remove the tin from the roasting tray and stand for several hours to cool to room temperature before refrigerating overnight. This will ensure the caramel will coat the custard when it is turned out.
To serve, run a knife around the edge of the custard, place a serving dish on top and flip it over.
2011 Pigeade Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (375ml, $25) – Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Crème de la crème". Subscribe here.