Ah, crème caramel – surely one of the world’s greatest desserts. Simple, yet elegant. Light, yet sustaining. It’s not a difficult dessert to make, but it does require a bit of craftsmanship – knowing how to make a proper caramel; knowing when the custards are perfectly cooked. It was a dessert I made very early on in my culinary journey, but one which took a while to master.
Let’s talk about the caramel. You can either make a wet caramel (i.e. sugar and water), or a dry caramel (just the sugar). I’ve tried both over time, and for me personally, I prefer the dry sugar method. But, either way, you’ll want to get to grips with knowing when to take the caramel off the stove-top. Too early, and you get an insipid, overly sweet caramel; too late, and it’s a hot burnt mess. The trick to a perfect caramel is to let it move right past light amber, through medium amber, and into a deep amber the shade of a copper penny. That moment just before it burns gives you the best, smoky caramel flavour, but you need nerves of steel!
As for the custard – like any cooked custard you want to take it out of the oven just as it’s starting to firm up, but where it’s still a bit jiggly in the middle. You do this because the custard continues to cook while it retains heat and then it also firms up in the fridge. This rule applies to other custard-based desserts too, like creme brulees, pots de creme and even cheesecakes. It’s a damn good rule to know.
So, having got that out of the way, I want to talk about this recipe from the English queen of desserts – Mary Berry – at BBC Food. She uses full fat-milk and, having tried several other variations, including half milk/half cream, all cream, and creme fraiche, I’ve come to the conclusion that her version is the best. It ensures a light, silky custard which is the perfect foil for the caramel its doused in. If you’ve never made a creme caramel, I hope you try it – it’s one of the great stalwarts of dessert cookery and one you’ll always come back to.
CLASSIC CREME CARAMEL
For the caramel:
- 160g/6oz sugar + 6 Tbsp water (for wet caramel method) or just the sugar on its own (for dry caramel method)
- Unsalted butter, for greasing the ramekins
For the custard:
- 4 free-range eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 25g/1oz caster sugar
- 600ml/1 pint full-fat milk
- Pouring cream, to serve
- Pre-heat oven 150C/300F. Put a jug of water onto boil for the bain marie.
- For the wet caramel: Pour the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Dissolve the sugar slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon over a low heat.When there are no sugar granules left, stop stirring (and don’t use the spoon anymore) and boil until the sugar turns a deep amber colour (swirl the pan to distribute the caramel evenly).
For the dry caramel: Pour the sugar into a fry pan (a wider surface helps the sugar burn evenly). Let is sit on a low heat until you start seeing signs of it melting underneath – at that point, start dragging the sugar from the outside towards the centre with a wooden spoon. Once the sugar has more or less melted, put the spoon away and swirl the pan to distribute the caramel evenly. (I find this method cooks the caramel much faster than the wet method and I usually end up taking the pan off the stove top while I’m swirling it, to slow the process down a little).
- Remove immediately from the heat to ensure the caramel does not burn (you can always plunge the bottom of the saucepan into icy cold water to stop the cooking process) and quickly pour the caramel into the ramekins.
- Set aside to cool and become hard (which won’t take long). Don’t put the caramels in the fridge because the sugar will absorb moisture and go soft and tacky. Once hard, butter or lightly spray the sides of the ramekins above the level of the caramel (NB: I’ve forgotten this step previously, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference).
- For the custard: Whisk the eggs, vanilla extract and caster sugar together in a bowl until well mixed.
- Pour the milk into a saucepan, gently heat over a low heat until you can still just dip your finger in for a moment (i.e. scalding), then pour it gently but steadily into the egg mixture in the bowl. Whisk together until smooth, trying not to aerate it too much.
- Strain the mixture into a pourable jug, then pour the mixture into the prepared ramekins.
- Stand the ramekins in a roasting tin (you can place a tea-towel on the bottom of the roasting tin to ensure the ramekins don’t slide around) and pour enough boiling water into it to come half way up the sides of the ramekins.
- Cook in the oven for about 35-45 minutes (Mary says 20-30 minutes, which has never worked for me) or until the custard is just setting (it should still wobble in the centre a bit like jello).
- Take the custards out of the oven, remove the ramekins from the tray and set on a cooling rack. When cool, transfer to the fridge overnight so that the caramel is absorbed into the custard.
- To serve, take the ramekins out of the fridge and let them sit at room temperature for 15-30 minutes or so (I find the custards unmold easier when not straight out of the fridge). Tip the ramekins slightly and loosen the custards by running a small palette knife around the edges. Place a serving dish on top of the ramekin and turn upside down, giving it a shake if necessary*. Serve with fresh seasonal fruit and cream.
*Note: It’s perfectly normal to have some hard toffee left in the ramekins when you turn your custards out. You can pop the ramekins in the microwave to heat the remaining caramel (try it on high for about 30-40 seconds) and pour it back over the custards, or use it to create toffee shapes on baking paper and when cold you can serve with, or on, the creme caramels. And don’t fret about getting the toffee out of the ramekins – simply pour hot water into them and leave them for a while – the toffee will soon dissolve.
Food Photography Info: Canon 550D (EOS Rebel T2i); Canon 50mm 1.8 lens / Natural lighting