Friday, August 4, 2017

Classic Crème Caramel

Probably the easiest yet most impressive dessert you can whip up in advance - it's Crème Caramel.

Sounds fancy, sounds French (cuz it is), sounds fussy and out-of-reach, right? Does it make you nervous just saying it?


It's easy. One bowl, on pot, no mixer, two mixing steps, set it and forget it.

The best part? You must make it at least a day in advance so when the time comes, you just turn it out and bingo! Fancy dessert and wowed guests.

So what is this fancy dessert anyways? It is a sweet custard with a striking glossy dark caramel/burnt sugar crown. It is enjoyed as "flan" in so many parts of the world including South America, Portugal and Spain. Thailand loves to eat all sorts of flan-like desserts and the Philippines has their own version that is rich and dense with only egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk called Leche Flan.

Crème Caramel is a lightened up version made with milk, cream, sugar and whole eggs. Although vanilla is classic, you can flavour it in so many ways by infusing tea leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, orange peel or nutmeg into the milk. It is a great canvas if you feel like being creative!

The appeal and sexiness is in its texture - silky, silky, just utterly silky smooth. It cuts like butter and goes down easy as ever.

How do you get that perfect texture?

A water bath, low heat and patience. This custard needs to go into an oven-proof dish and set in a rimmed baking tray that you can fill with hot water about 1-inch up the sides. This hot water bath will create a humid environment and also produce even heat around the flan so that it cooks gently and uniformly. Just 300-325 degrees F will cook it slowly.

When do you know it is ready?

Not when it is cooked all the way through, but just about an inch in diameter away from the center of the flan. In other words, it should wiggle! The dead center of the flan should jiggle when you give the dish a little shake but the outside edges should be properly set. As it cools it will continue to cook gently from its own internal heat leaving you with a delicately just-set custard. Remember we are cooking with whole eggs so intense heat and over-cooking means scrambled eggs.

To start this glorious dessert, make the caramel. Place sugar and water in a saucepan and heat on high until it boils. Watch as it turns amber coloured and swirl the pan to colour evenly. Do not stir. Once you see a nice dark amber, start pouring it into the prepared dishes, swirling the dishes to coat the base evenly with a nice 2-mm layer. I even like to let it get into the edges a bit so I'm sure there is plenty of copper-coloured sauce that pours out when I turn it over. Don't shy away from that really dark colour - just as long as it doesn't go black! Too light and it won't transfer enough colour to your custard and will be bland, and too dark might lead to burnt and bitter. I'd err on the darker side though if you are hesitant. A touch of vinegar will provide some insurance against crystallization.

Once you've poured out the caramel, pour in your milk or cream into that same pot (less clean up!). To make things super convenient and a bit less expensive, I've made this recipe with 10% cream and a bit of 2% milk (but go ahead and use all 10% cream for a slightly creamier mouthfeel). Typically it is made with a blend of 35% whipping cream and milk, but most people carry light cream in their fridge for coffee and it is often cheaper than 35% cream! So with a little bit of math and Food Science nerdism, I've converted my traditional recipe into one that works perfectly well with coffee cream.

Heat the creamy mixture gently until it just starts to steam. Give it a stir once in a while to prevent scortching on the bottom. At this point you also want to add any flavours that need infusing, like vanilla bean, spices, tea leaves, coffee or citrus peel. If you are using vanilla extract, then you can add it later.

Crack your eggs into a bowl and whisk in the sugar with a pinch of salt until smooth. Gradually pour just 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the bowl while whisking until it is combined. Then continue to slowly pour in the cream while whisking constantly until it is all blended. This gradually addition of cream helps to carefully bring the egg temperature up so that they can blend more easily and the proteins won't get shocked when they hit the heat of the oven. Whisk in the vanilla extract and then pour this whole mixture into your baking dish. If you want to be 100% free of any tiny curdled egg bits, then pour it through a sieve.

Now place the dish in a rimmed baking tray, fill the base with water and place in the oven. Close the door and forget about it for at least 1 hour.

Chill it overnight and chill out because you don't have to worry about dessert tomorrow.

You are so smart.

Classic Crème Caramel
makes two 6-inch flans or 8-10 individual servings

For the caramel:
¾ cup (150g) granulated sugar
3 tbsp water
½ tsp distilled white vinegar

For the custard:
½ cup (120ml) 2% milk
2 ½ cups (600ml) 10% half & half cream
4 large whole eggs
3 large egg yolks
2/3 cup (135g) granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Have ready two 6-inch round oven-proof dishes or eight to ten 3-inch round (6 oz) ramekins.

To make the caramel, pour sugar in an even layer in the bottom of a small 1-quart saucepan and drizzle water and vinegar around the inner edges of the pan. Place pot over medium to medium-high heat and cook until sugar is dissolved and mixture changes into clear syrup. Decrease heat to medium and continue to cook until mixture turns golden amber, swirling pan periodically for even colouring. Do not stir the mixture or the sugar will crystallize. Immediately and carefully pour liquid caramel into the bottom of ramekins, dividing it equally and swirling ramekins to coat the bottoms evenly; set aside until the caramel has cooled and hardened completely.

To make the custard, combine cream and milk in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat and heat, stirring occasionally, until it begins to steam and small bubbles form around the edges.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and egg yolks. Whisk in sugar, salt and vanilla until well blended. Add ¼ cup of hot cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Gradually add another ¼ cup while whisking constantly. This slow addition of hot cream to cool eggs is called “tempering” as it brings the egg temperature up slowly to prevent curdling the proteins. Switch to a rubber spatula (to prevent excessive air incorporation and bubble formation) and add remaining milk while stirring constantly. If you have time, pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve and into a large measuring cup or clean bowl before pouring or ladling it into the caramel-lined dishes.

Transfer baking dish or ramekins to a rimmed baking tray. Add enough just-boiled water to come about 1 inch up the sides of the dish/ramekins. Bake until the edges are set and the center is just slightly wobbly, about 1 hour for a large flan or 25-30 minutes for individual ones. Let cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate overnight. To serve, run a knife around the edges of the flan and then invert it onto your serving plate. The gorgeous amber caramel will pour out and make the most delicious syrup around it. Serve with fresh red berries if you wish!
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