My idea of the perfect dessert involves custard in any shape or form. That a few simple, everyday ingredients can be applied to heat to produce such a rich and silky concoction is surely one of the great feats of civilization, right up there with the invention of stiletto heels and landing a man on the moon. Add a bit of caramel into the mix and I swoon like a nineteenth century maiden in an Edith Wharton novel.
Crème caramel, also known as flan in Spanish-speaking countries and in North America, is a custard dessert with a layer of soft caramel on top. It is similar to crème brûlée, which is custard with a hard caramel top. However, crème caramel is usually served unmolded, and because of this, it calls for more eggs and egg yolks than custards served directly from ramekins or other serving dishes.
Although crème caramel originated in Spain, it spread in popularity across Western Europe and much of the world. Packaged versions of this dessert are ubiquitous in Japan and are called “purin”, which means custard pudding. It is also common in the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as South American countries like Argentina and Uruguay, where it is usually eaten with dulce de leche.
The recipe I submit to you today is Julia Child’s crème renversée au caramel–unmolded caramel custard. It requires the additional caramel recipe on page 584 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You line your ramekins or molds with the caramel, fill it with custard, and then bake in a water bath to ensure slow and even cooking. It can seem a little complicated but crème caramel is actually quite simple to make and it never fails to impress.
Crème Renversée au Caramel
by Julia Child, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
serves 4-6 people
for the caramel:
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
Add sugar and water to a heavy stainless steel saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. When it starts to brown, swirl the saucepan around but do not stir. This will ensure that the sugar turns color evenly and will help wash any crystals off the side. When it is thick and a light, nutty brown, remove from heat and pour directly into molds; swirl each mold to coat evenly with the caramel.
for the custard:
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean
1) Bring the milk and vanilla bean (if you are using) to just below a simmer in a saucepan. Let the vanilla steep in the milk while you prepare the rest of the custard ingredients.
2) Gradually beat the sugar into the eggs and egg yolks in a bowl until well mixed, light, and foamy. Continue beating while pouring in the hot milk in a thin stream of droplets. If you are using vanilla extract rather than a vanilla bean, add it now. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve into the caramel-lined molds.
3) To bake the molds, set them in a pan and pour enough boiling water around them to come halfway up the sides. Place in the bottom third of an oven preheated to 350F. After five minutes, turn down the heat to 325F. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the center is firm but slightly wobbly. Cooking it too long will result in a tough rather than tender custard.
4) If you would like to serve the custards warm, set the molds in cold water for about ten minutes before unmolding; otherwise chill in the refrigerator. To unmold, run a knife between the custard and edges of the mold. Place a serving dish upside down over the mold and quickly reverse the two, and remove the mold from the custard.