It is perfectly understandable that I cannot just come back to this space after two whole years and let a crème caramel wobble under your noses, just like that.
You’ll want an explanation. You’ll want to know why I disappeared. And all that is fair.
But before I tell you how I’ve spent the last two years travelling and eating and starting a new travel venture and getting my heart-broken, I have to tell you about crème caramel.
In case you happen to be a child from the colorful 70s or the padded-shouldered 80s, you will remember crème caramel with the fondness with which you recall the pink of prawn cocktails, or the nauseating cheesy-ness of an au gratin. Or chunks of white bread soaked in warm, sweet milk that mum made on a wintry evening, right before she’d tell you to do your homework.
With its Gallic roots, crème caramel can be quite the charmer. If the inner-thigh quibble is not enough to convince you of its sex appeal, then think of bittersweet caramel mindlessly dribbling down its sides into a wet, sticky pool around that eggy custard. You wield your spoon and the custard surrenders.
When in comes to entertaining, my mother and I are like a well-oiled machine. We work with minimum fuss and maximum communication, no matter how many people are going to be eating or how many dishes are going to be on the menu. She’ll quickly put the marinade together, while I prep the chicken. She’ll ask me if I will do the sausage curry and then move on the rice without further questions, while I busy myself with curry paste. It’s been going on for a while between us…more than 10 years, if I think about it. Lately, however, she’s been more into taking a step back (I blame it on age…she’ll bury me alive if she knew I said that, so don’t tell her). But over the last two years my to-do list has bulked up while hers has waned to a certain extent. And I’m not complaining. I don’t think I can ever complain about cooking or baking, in all honesty.
Sunday came and went, and with that my Dad’s 61st birthday. All in blur of lightning and thunder storms. And in true mother-daughter fashion, we decided to whip up an enormous amount of rice, mutton curry and cucumber salad for guests and family friends. She did rice. I did mutton. She then moved on to salad. And I tackled crème caramel. Not that crème caramel needs tackling. Sexy and super glam, but fairly low maintenance.
Take the custard, for example – it’s traditional to use milk. And kindly leave your 2% where it belongs — in the garbage. For a silkier but heavier mouth-feel you may go with cream instead. The recipe I’ve used over the years is the same one used by the women in my family before me and it’s an all-milk one. But this time, because I had a small pitcher of double-cream stashed at the the back of the refrigerator (from leftover ice-cream), I’ve mixed it up by using both milk and cream. Make it too rich and it becomes crème brûlée. And on this note, I cannot stress how easy it is to make a crème caramel carry exotic flavors — mango, litchi, matcha or even chocolate, for that matter.
I could kick myself for not having tasted a caramel custard the last time I was in Paris. But then that gives me one more reason to pen Paris in my travel plans. Pan Asian, at ITC Sonar, serves a distinctly pleasurable Jasmine tea flavored Crème Brûlée, that had inspired me to make this Darjeeling tea inspired caramel way back in 2012. And very recently, I have been partial to Asia Kitchen’s coconut crème caramel, which is of a firmer pedigree with heavy notes of coconut. It wobbles alright, but with a sturdy solemnity. Asia Kitchen by no means is a French bistro, you wouldn’t expect good French dessert from them, but their version is what it is.
The star of a crème caramel is the caramel sauce, and the traditional way to make that is out of sugar and butter. Here again, I prefer to go the Felicity Cloake way, and make caramel either out of white sugar only, or a blend of white and dark brown sugars.
Pay extra attention to the caramel. Any crème caramel worth its salt should come with special powers. In its wake should come nostalgia. The same kind of nostalgia that you might get when thinking of leftover Christmas pudding on Boxers Day. Or your first kiss ever in a dark corner of the local park. That kind of nostalgia is powerful and the only kind that’s worth pursuing. A well-made caramel sauce has the power to bring it.
Ratio: It is always about the ratio. To make a 9″ dia. flan, you’ll need 3 cups of liquid. This liquid can be played in many different combination depending upon how rich or how flavored you want your dessert to be. I normally use 2 cups of whole milk and 1 cup of heavy cream. On occasions, I have used 2 cups of whole milk and 1 cup of mango puree. You get the idea.
Eggs: The firmness of the custard obviously depends on the number of eggs that you use. Using only yolks will give you a richer, crème brulee-ish texture. I use whole eggs — almost 2 and a half whole eggs per cup of liquid. Try to mix the eggs into the custard mix rather than beat it in. The more air you beat into the mix the more bubbly the edges will appear (which is what happened to the batch I made, as evident from the photos).
Caramel: There are umpteen methods of making caramel. For a crème caramel though, always go with a sugar-only method. Adding butter or milk or water will only dilute the heady, smoky, bittersweet taste of true caramel. Ensure your caramel layer has cooled sufficiently before pouring in the milk custard.
Prepping the tin: Again, everyone has their own way. Most popular crème caramel recipes start with greasing tins and ramekins with butter. The caramel is made separately in a deep saucepan and then poured into the prepped tin/ramekins. I usually do it directly in the tin itself. Without a thermometer and without greasing the tin. The hot caramel has a way of letting the custard slide out when cool. However, if you make individual portions, greasing ramekins will be desirable.
8 whole eggs
2 cups of whole milk
1 cup of double cream
1/2 cup of white granulated sugar
2 teaspsoons of vanilla extract
3 tablespoons of white granulated sugar
3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
In a bowl beat the eggs well. Try and avoid aerating it.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C.
In a large bowl, mix milk, cream, sugar and vanilla till the sugar dissolves. Pour in the eggs and mix well.
Prep your baking tin by spreading 3 tbsps of white & brown sugar each, in an even layer, on the bottom of the tin. Put the tin on low heat. When the sugar starts to melt and goes all translucent, you can move the tin around a bit (please use gloves or appropriate kitchen cloths!) to distribute the heat, but don’t stir. When the caramel has turned a deep amber brown, take it off the heat and let it cool on a cold surface (stone or metal counter would do) for a minute.
Pour the custard mixture through a sieve, onto the layer of caramel. If the caramel is too hot the mixture will seep through and the end result won’t have a smooth top surface, so be wary of that. Bake for 40-50 min or until a knife put through its heart comes out smooth and clean.
Chill the custard in the refrigerator for about 2 hours, before upturning on a large plate!