I love crème caramel. I adore it. There’s something about its silken, creamy texture that brings out the worst glutton in me. I don’t make it very often – usually it’s for celebrations or dinner parties – but only because I’ll eat too much of it. The recipe that I’m sharing with you today is ridiculously simple and will give you a crème caramel of unsurpassed texture and taste.
There’s a trick, of course, which happens to be powdered milk. Strange, but true – the recipe originally came off the back of a powdered milk packet that my mother once bought about forty years ago. Alas, the original snippet has been lost but the recipe goes on.
The origins of crème caramel seem to be a little murky and despite some digging, I’ve not been able to come up with any really clear answer as to who can claim to have invented this divine dessert.
The Romans certainly had baked custard – the recipes of Apicius list something called a Tyropatinum, which reads;
Tyropatinam: accipies lac, aduersus quod patinam aestimabis, temperabis lac cum melle quasi ad lactantia, oua quinque ad sextarium mittis, si ad heminam, oua tria. in lacte dissolues ita ut unum corpus facias, in Cumana colas et igni lento coques. cum duxerit ad se, piper adspargis et inferes.
Estimate the amount of milk necessary for this dish and sweeten it with honey to taste; to a pint of fluid take 5 eggs; for half a pint dissolve 3 eggs in milk and beat well until it is incorporated thoroughly, strain through a colander into an earthen dish and cook on a slow fire in hot water bath in oven. When congealed sprinkle with pepper and serve. (translation from here)
No sugar in this recipe, of course – sugar was known to the Romans but was a rare and expensive trade item that came from India via the Silk Route – but honey is a perfect replacement. Indeed, when I went to my Concise Larousse Gastronomic to look up crème caramel, the only recipe I could find was under “honey”. So much for being a French classic!
From what I’ve been able to glean via the internet, it was the Moors in Spain in the 15th century that brought in sugar and gave them what we now call crème brûlée, which the Spanish call Crema Catalana (‘Catalan Cream’), Crema Cremada (‘Burnt cream’) or Crema de Sant Josep. At some point, someone had the brilliant idea of putting the caramel inside the baking dish or mold rather than leaving it on top. The idea moved to France at some point and then to England. Recipes for crème brûlée appear from the mid 1600’s onwards, but I’ve not been able to find anything for crème caramel. Probably the most “authentic” version is probably the flan so beloved in most South American countries.
So, here’s my recipe. It’s the powdered milk that allows you to control the moisture content in the crème caramel and it’s what gives this particular recipe a delicate firmness that others lack.
You will need;
- 1 cup caster sugar (for the caramel)
- 2 cups powdered milk (avoid reduced-fat or fat-free)
- 3 cups warm water
- ½ cup caster sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 1 or 2 vanilla beans or essence to taste (be generous – I make my own essence and put in a hefty glug)
Preheat your oven to 160ºC and grease a 20cm cake pan (or use individual molds).
Melt the cup of caster sugar in a non-stick pan to golden toffee, pour into cake pan and ensure that it covers the base as evenly as you can manage. Let cool.
Mix remaining ingredients and pour through sieve into cake pan (the sieve catches any lumps and ensures your mix will be perfectly smooth).
Put your filled cake pan into a water bath and bake for about 90 minutes (turning the pan around at the halfway mark to ensure there are no hotspots). The crème caramel is ready when the top is firm to finger-touch and there is only the smallest amount of jiggle. Turn off the oven and carefully remove the pan from the water bath. Let it cool on the counter and then pop it into the fridge for at least four hours (overnight is best).
To unmold, very gently tease the edges of the crème caramel away from the pan with the tip of one finger until you see caramel sauce welling up from underneath. If it appears to be sticking, very carefully run a slim knife around the edge to free it. Place a deep platter upside down over the cake pan and, with one swift sure motion, turn them both over. The crème caramel will slither onto the plate with a delicious sucking sound and caramel sauce will go everywhere. Serve plain, in slices.
This, of course, is the basic recipe. You can, of course, replace one of the cups of warm water with a cup of good coffee, or pour a shot of Frangelico (or other liqueur) over the turned-out crème caramel, or infuse the custard with orange peel and so on. If your crème caramel has little holes in it like a sponge, the mixture has boiled, so you’ll need to look at your oven temperature carefully and reduce it down. It won’t ruin the crème caramel but the texture won’t be as nice.