Spoonable and consoling crème caramel. It’s been around forever it seems. Always a restaurant staple, but rarely made at home, or at least never by me. I think I’ve always been rather intimidated by it – dark caramel running down satiny slopes of custard seemed too fancy, too much the work of a pro. Even the texture is perfectly constructed; the sultry amber syrup has just enough bitterness to stop the whole thing feeling babyish. And yet, this is surprisingly straightforward to make and downright lovely.
On the custard continuum, it’s at the lean end, with crème brûlée (of shattered sugar fame) at the other, and pot de crème somewhere in the middle. Traditionally, whole milk and whole eggs are used which helps it hold its shape, out there on its own. It also gives it that just-set texture. These days, egg yolks or cream are often added in the quest for velvet tenderness. My first attempt without either reminded me of a Mini Milk (the only ice lolly I was ever allowed because it cost 10p); no bad thing but I wanted something a bit more grown-up, so this recipe has extra yolks.
The pudding’s complexity comes from the way the caramel ‘lining’ is absorbed by the custard over the time they spend together in the fridge and sitting on the counter top, which is why crème caramel is at its best eaten at room temperature. Cold dulls our perception of taste, and this is where you want liquid warmth, not the foggy chill of ice cream.
A vanilla bean is a traditional steeping ingredient here, but this custard also takes kindly to being infused with herbs, flowers and spices. On my first outing, I steeped rose petals in the milk mixture for about an hour, and the result was delicate and subtle. Some finely chopped rosemary on my second attempt gave it more body, with an earthy, faintly medicinal quality. Orange zest was just right; warm and fragrant, without taking away from the pudding’s beautiful simplicity, while pulling it back from mere sweetness. I include it here.
Orange crème caramel/Crème renversée à l’orange
Adapted from Simon Hopkinson, Roast Chicken and Other Stories
2 cups (500ml) of creamy milk
Finely grated zest of 1 large orange (2 if you want more intensity)
⅓ cup (80g) of sugar
2 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
Generous ⅓ cup (100g) of sugar to make the caramel
Pour the milk into a pan and add ⅓ cup (80g) of sugar with the orange zest. Bring to the boil, then remove it from the heat and leave to infuse for at least an hour. Put the whole eggs and egg yolks in a bowl and whisk lightly. Bring the orange milk up to a simmer, then temper the eggs by pouring in half a cup of the milk at a time, so they don’t scramble. Mix together, but don’t allow the eggs and milk mixture to become too frothy. Strain this through a fine sieve to remove all the zest, pressing down to extract as much of the flavour as possible. Put to one side and heat the oven to 300F.
Now for the caramel. Put the generous ⅓ cup (100g) of sugar into a pan and add enough water to cover (you don’t have to be precise about how much). Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and then boil hard. Watch as it turns from transparent to light gold to reddish brown; don’t do anything else while this is happening as you don’t want it pale and insipid, but you don’t want black sugar either. It moves from one to the other with startling speed. As soon as you think it’s ready, pour into six ramekins, swirling it so that it covers the base and some of the sides. It will harden quickly, so act fast and don’t talk to anyone. When it’s set, put each ramekin into a roasting dish, and from there gently pour the custard mixture into each mould. Now pour enough hot tap water into the roasting dish so that it goes most of the way up the sides of the moulds (about two-thirds), cover the dish with foil, and bake for about 40 minutes.
Don’t have the heat too high, or boil the water as the custard will curdle. They’re ready when there’s still a small liquid centre, which will firm up after you remove them from the oven. Take them out and keep them in the roasting tin on the counter for 30 minutes, then refrigerate, covered, for about 5 hours or overnight. Let them come to room temperature, if you can. It also makes them easier to turn out. To serve, run a thin knife round the edges of each ramekin to loosen, put a plate over the top and flip over.
Some steeping ideas: 3 sprigs of thyme or a sprig of rosemary, rose petals from 2 untreated rose heads, the zest of a whole orange, lemon or lime, ¼ cup of fresh lemon verbena, lemon balm or lavender, ¾ cup of toasted nuts, such as almonds or hazelnuts, or 2 teaspoons of toasted cardamom seeds. The amount of time you infuse these ingredients in the milk mixture will depend on how intensely you want the flavour to come through.