Crème caramel looks classy. A perfectly baked custard with a smooth velvety texture and a dark layer on top where it has absorbed the caramel, covered in a shiny, golden brown sauce gives a level of elegance to this dessert that many others lack. It helps that crème caramel is often served in individual portions which makes it seem more personal rather than getting a slice of a huge multi-serving dessert. Crème caramel should not be confused with crème brulee which is also a baked custard; but as the latter is served in its ramekin, the custard is usually less set as it does not need to hold its shape (and of course, crème caramel has a liquid sauce whereas crème brulee has a hard layer of caramel on top).
What makes the custard for crème caramel unique is that is uses whole eggs. Most classic custards used in baking (crème anglaise and crème patisserie) use only egg yolks. This is because a crème caramel needs to be sturdy enough to stand up with no walls to hold it in but also should have a melt-in-the-mouth, velvety texture. Crème patisserie would make a good candidate for this as it is a strong custard which is thick enough to be piped however this comes from a starchy thickening agent (either cornflour or normal flour). This starch gives the custard a far claggier consistency which is very nice in eclairs or holding together a fraisier cake but does not lend itself well to a light dessert – it is far to rich. To get a softer texture, the egg whites are added to the crème caramel as these set when they cook. Egg white coagulates at a slightly lower temperature to the yolks (that’s how you get a runny yolk on your poached eggs) and as such, once the yolks are cooked, you can guarantee that the whites are too and that the dessert is ready to be taken from the oven.
Like most desserts which involve baking some sort of custard, crème caramel is taken out of the oven slightly before the middle is set. This is because milk and eggs have a moderately high specific heat capacity – it takes a lot of energy to raise the temperature by a small amount. As a result, the desserts can lose a lot of energy without cooling too much so they take a long time to cool and the residual heat in the custard will finish cooking the centre without overcooking it (as the overall temperature of the dessert will not rise once it removed from the oven). In the cases of some desserts (like pumpkin pie), the sugars in the custard will compound this effect – white sugar takes 50 times more energy to heat up and cool down than an equivalent quantity of water – and the pie can still be warm up to four hours after removal from the oven.
Crème caramel is best made the day before you wish to eat it. This is so the water in the custard has time to dissolve the caramel. Even if it doesn’t look like there is water available, caramel is hydroscopic and deliquescent. You can guarantee that it will pull moisture out of the custard and then proceed to dissolve in it to make the golden sauce you find covering all crème caramels. If you try to serve the crème caramel too soon, you will see a layer of undissolved caramel in the base of the ramekin after plating up. This is flavour which has been lost! I am not patient when it comes to eating things I have made. I want to eat them as soon as possible but, as I have learnt, sometimes it really is better to wait.
Like anything involving melted sugar, please be careful as caramel will badly burn you if it gets on your skin. Make sure that you don’t mess around with it and that you have access to a very cold tap should you manage to splash yourself. Do not let children near the caramel until it has cooled.
As you will realise, these are incredibly easy to make and taste fantastic. You should definitely try them out. They also make a brilliant dinner party food as they are prepared in advance, low effort and high impact.
For the caramel:
Butter (for lining the ramekins)
For the custard:
1 pint whole milk
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
You will need 6 ramekins and a large tall sided baking dish which the ramekins will fit into.
Place the ramekins in the oven and heat to gas mark 2. This will prevent the ramekins from shattering when you pour the boiling caramel into them.
In a heavy-based steel pan (don’t use non-stick as it will cause the caramel to crystalize) mix the sugar and water.
Gently heat on the hob and stir to dissolve the sugar.
Once the sugar has all dissolved, turn the heat to maximum and boil the sugar and water mix until reaches a deep caramel colour. If you are unsure about how far to go, it is better to err on the side of caution and have slightly pale crème caramels the first time. You don’t want to burn the sugar.
While the sugar is boiling, run a basin about an inch full of cold water. The moment the caramel reaches the desired colour, plunge the base of the pan into the water to cool it. If you don’t do this, the latent heat in the saucepan can continue to cook the caramel causing it to burn.
The moment you have cooled the pan, pour the caramel into the ramekins and tilt them to make sure it runs right to the edges. Try not to let the caramel set too much as you may have to spread it with a spoon and it is very, very sticky (and hot).
Allow the caramel to cool to room temperature. Do not place it in the fridge as the environment in it will cause the caramel to go soggy. This usually takes 30 minutes to an hour. Don’t be worried if you hear cracking noises. That is the caramel contracting as it cools and it can crack a little but this will not affect the dessert. Just rest assured that it is not the ramekin that is breaking!
If you are using a vanilla pod, split it down the middle and scrape out the seeds. If you are using extract, skip this and the next step.
Place it in a saucepan with the milk and gently heat until the milk is body temperature or feels slightly warm to the touch. Remove from the heat and let cool. Strain this before the next step so there are no little bits of vanilla pod in the final desert.
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Whisk in the milk (and vanilla) to get a homogeneous mixture.
Use butter to lightly grease the ramekins (but don’t grease the caramel). This will help later when you want to remove the crème caramels for serving.
Pour the milk mix into the ramekins splitting it evenly between them.
Place the ramekins in a large baking dish and fill it with boiling water until it comes half way up the side of the ramekins. Bake for 30-45 minutes at gas mark 2. You will know when they are done as the crème caramels will have a slight wobble in the centre when jiggled and will clearly not be liquid anymore. It should appear a little bit rubbery when you wobble them (but I promise the texture is incredibly soft.)
Remove the desserts from the oven and the tray and leave to cool to room temperature. Cover them and leave in the fridge until serving. They can be eaten the day they are made but I would advise leaving them for 24 hours as in this time, the caramel will absorb into the dessert giving you the classic, golden sauce that pours out all over the crème caramel when you serve them.
To plate up, run a blunt knife around the outside of the crème caramel, invert onto a dish and jiggle until the dessert comes free. I often find that it can help to detach one area from the side of the ramekin to release the seal.
Have a good one and I will be back next week with a simple weeknight meal which packs a punch of flavour.