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The perfect Crème caramel

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first things I learnt to make as a young apprentice chef was a simple custard, known in France as Crème Anglaise. Its one of those essential things that any aspiring cook has to master, a building block technique that leads to the making of so many delicious recipes from pastry cream, ice cream, bavarois to Crème brulée and Crème caramel.

I must admit I still love a classic Crème caramel, it’s a testimony to the notion the simplest things are often the best. At its heart, crème caramel is nothing but a winning combination of just two basic components…custard and caramel.

To make the perfect custard, a little understanding of science can help, as it’s useful to know that egg protein comes in the form of little strands. As you cook them they coil up. Cook them too much over a high heat and they stop being custard and they become scrambled egg.

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So the first rule is to take your time: Custard must be cooked slowly – it should take at least 10-15 minutes. Never try to hurry the process by turning up the heat. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon. It’s also a good idea to have a pan of cold water on hand to plunge the base of your saucepan into if you feel your custard is overheating. Another pitfall is people often think it should be thicker, therefore keep on cooking beyond the necessary point.

Remember, it thickens on cooling, so the consistency should be somewhere between single and double cream. A clean saucepan also helps, once the milk has been heated in the saucepan and poured over the yolks and sugar; it’s advisable to wash the saucepan before returning everything to it.

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This helps you see any sign of splitting more clearly. If you have a sugar thermometer or a temperature probe, the correct temperature your custard should reach is about 77C/170F, then remove from the heat immediately. You should have a shiny-looking custard with a smooth texture. The custard can be made and refrigerated for two to three days.

For the caramel, ensure your saucepan is super-clean and free of grease. Put the water in first, and then sprinkle the sugar over it so you don’t have a dry layer of sugar on the base that will burn. Stir the sugar syrup gently so you don’t splatter it up the side of the pan; it’ll form crystals and ruin the caramel.

Cook the caramel quickly over high heat. The French cook their caramel until it reaches a very deep amber colour, so it has a really rich caramel flavour. You need to remove the saucepan from the heat to stop the cooking before it starts smoking or the caramel becomes bitter; too pale, though, and it won’t have the depth of flavour you need – there’s nothing more disappointing than turning a crème caramel out that’s pale in colour. Hot caramel is very dangerous so do not dip your finger into it as it will give you a nasty burn, so be very careful while you work with it, too.

Crème caramel, known as flan in Spain is the country’s most popular dessert. It is on every menu in every region of Spain – and if made properly, it is sensational. A great crème caramel should be velvety smooth with a slight wobble.

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Crème Caramel

Serves 2-4

For the caramel:

  • 180g white sugar
  • 100ml water

For the custard

  • 200ml milk
  • 200ml cream
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • Grated zest of ½ lemon

1 Begin by making the caramel. Heat the water and melt the sugar in a saucepan by placing it over a medium heat.

2 Using a wooden spoon, give it a gentle stir and continue to cook and until the sugar has transformed from crystals to liquid and is the colour of dark runny honey – the whole thing should take 10 minutes.

3 Take the pan off the heat and carefully add 2 tablespoons of water, as it sometimes splutters at this stage.

4 Now you may need to return the pan to a low heat to re-melt the caramel, stirring until any lumps have dissolved again. Then quickly divide the caramel between individual soufflé moulds, tipping it round the base and sides to coat.

5 For the custard, bring the cream and milk to the boil with the lemon zest and vanilla pod. Infuse for at least 10 minutes.

6 Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and pour over the cream. Return to the stove, stirring continuously until the mixture just coats the back of a spoon. Do not boil.

7 As soon as the mixture begins to thicken slightly, remove from the heat. Pass through a fine sieve and pour the mixture into the prepared moulds.

8 Place the moulds in a high-sided baking dish and fill with hot water to halfway up the moulds. Bake in a preheated 160ºC oven for 30-35 minutes or until set (a knife should come out clean from the custard).

9 Cool and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. To serve: Run a knife around the edge of the Flan and then turn out on to a serving plate.

Marinated strawberries with passion fruit and lavender custard

Serves 4

  • 500g fresh strawberries (quartered)
  • 100ml orange juice
  • juice and zest of one lime
  • 1tbsp sugar
  • 2 passion fruits, juice and seeds
  • 1tbsp olive oil

Lavender Custard

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 125g sugar
  • 150ml cream
  • 150ml milk
  • 1tspn lavender flowers

1 Mix al the ingredients together and leave to marinate for at least 20 minutes.

Lavender Custard

2 Bring the cream and milk to the boil with the lavender flowers. Infuse for at least 10 minutes.

3 Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and pour over the cream and the flowers. Return to the stove, stirring continuously until the mixture just coats the back of a spoon. Do not boil.

4 As soon as the mixture begins to thicken slightly, remove from the heat. Pass through a fine sieve into a clean bowl. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

5 To serve, place the lavender custard in 4 tall glasses and top with the marinated strawberries. Serve immediately.

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