Almost all European nations have some version of baked custard. Crema catalana is not more interesting or more flavourful, but it is a happy variant on more conventional baked custards. This version is from the south of Spain. The addition of the cinnamon and citrus, and a hint of vanilla, is what sets it apart. It is my go-to recipe. The ratio of cream, eggs and sugar is perfect, particularly if you are adding more sugar to brûlée the top.
Cinnamon is what makes the dish, and it’s used in custards across the Iberian Peninsula. In Portugal there is the pastel de nata, a baked custard tart served with a top of cinnamon and icing sugar. Cafes and pastry shops in Portugal – and also in former colonies such as Macau – have specially made silver shakers on their bars for diners to top the desserts.
The secret to a smooth baked custard is a long and slow bake. Too hot and it will curdle around the edges. Whatever dish it is in will overheat and split the egg. If it feels like it is taking too long, you’re doing the right thing. What’s quite nice about the custard is as it cooks it sets from the outside in. My test for when it’s ready to come out of the oven is to tap the baking tray and see how large the wobbly area in the middle of the custard is. Once it is the size of a 10-cent piece it’s ready to come out: the residual heat will cook it through.
But that’s the easy bit. The real test is the smooth and even caramelising of the top. In Spain, this was traditionally done with a branding iron that sat directly on the stovetop to warm through. The iron was about the size of a hockey puck, mounted on a wood handle, which would be pressed onto the sugar dusted on top of the custard. It instantly caramelised it. There are similar electric versions in the market now. They are mostly useless.
The better option is a small blowtorch from a hardware store. They start at $20 and are absolutely worth it. They work caramelising all desserts, and can also be used for searing fish or other preparations that require a focused blast of heat.
The trick with the caramel is not to crystallise the sugar. Be generous with the heat, and scant with the sugar itself. Once cooked, resist any temptation to dress up the dish and serve as is.
– 600ml single cream
– tiny pinch of salt
– 1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways
– 1 cinnamon stick
– ½ lemon, zested
– ½ orange, zested
– 6 egg yolks
– 100g castor sugar
Preheat the oven to 170⁰C.
In a small saucepan, combine the cream, salt, vanilla pod and scraped-out seeds, cinnamon stick and lemon and orange zest. Warm the cream mixture over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, and bring to a simmer.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover with a lid, and leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes. Put the egg yolks and castor sugar into a large bowl, and whisk them until pale in colour. Remove the vanilla pod from the cream, and pour the infused cream through a sieve into the egg mixture, whisking continuously until well blended.
Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for about five minutes, until the mixture has slightly thickened.
Place six or eight small ramekins in a deep roasting dish and pour the custard into the ramekins. Place the roasting dish into the oven and carefully pour hot tap water into the tray so that the water rises three-quarters of the way up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the custards have achieved a wobbly set.
Remove the custards from the oven and set them on a rack for 20 minutes to cool. Place them in the fridge for at least two hours, to chill fully.
One at a time, dust each cold custard with one tablespoon of sugar and immediately take a brûlée branding iron or gas torch and caramelise each top. Do not be afraid to go quite dark with the caramel – a subtle bitterness from the caramel is a very good thing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2016 as "Custardy agreement". Subscribe here.