Thursday, April 03, 2008

Crème Anglaise

Strawberries in crème anglaise is the dessert I think of when I'm wondering what I should make that will be casual but elegant. If I want something creamy but not heavy, with a bit of brightness to it, this is where it's at. Crème anglaise is like a lighter, thinner version of crème brûlée, perfect as a sauce for bread puddings or trifles, a wonderful base for ice cream, and delicious served just with berries. It always amazes me to think that there are so many out there who have never had this simple, perfect dish, which is why it's so important I share this with you. Also, strawberries are just coming into season.

Crème anglaise is a great French term, but unfortunately there's not a good English term to match it. This leaves me sounding ridiculously self-important when I explain what I'm serving. Sometimes I try to say "vanilla cream sauce" or "custard sauce" or something else to keep from seeming too pretentious, but then I end up feeling completely silly calling it something it isn't, like calling a filet mignon a "piece of cow" to make it simpler to understand. Utter silliness. Eventually, crème anglaise will be more commonly known, and I won't have this problem. Right now, I'm just doing my part to spread the word.

Stovetop custards are just a bit tricky to master, but not so much that you should stop here and think, "Tricky? Hmmm. Maybe this isn't right for me." Not that tricky. In fact, if you follow the instructions carefully, you should have a perfect dessert. And then you'll be wanting to make them all the time. Crème anglaise, old-fashioned puddings. This is not such a bad idea, actually. Stovetop chocolate pudding (not the packaged variety or another cornstarch-based recipe) will send you over the top if you're as much a chocolate fan as I. Or as much a custard fan.

Oh, let me back up. Have you ever made the stovetop (not instant) Jell-O brand puddings? Because that's as tricky as this recipe gets. See, not very tricky. Not if Jell-O is asking you to take it on.

So, please, do the country a favor. Make this for yourself. Share it with others. Say it with me. "crem ong-glezz". Then, not only will you speak French, but you'll have a very pleasant dessert in your repertoire.

Strawberries in Crème Anglaise
adapted from Julia Child in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home

6 egg yolks
2/3 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. milk (whole is best, 2% good, 1% will do, substitute 1/4 c. for cream if using skim)
2 T. unsalted butter
1 T. vanilla extract (or use half a vanilla bean and steep it in the hot milk for a few minutes)

1 lb. fresh strawberries, cleaned and stemmed (sliced or quartered if large)

Set a heavy-bottomed* medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the milk and warm to hot. Hot enough to burn you, not hot enough to boil.

Meanwhile, in a small to medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. It should form a ribbon when drizzled, and should make you think of some kind of candy, like taffy maybe.

Slowly drizzle two-thirds of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, being especially sure during the first little bit to evenly incorporate the milk and not heat any part of the egg yolks too fast, or they will coagulate and you'll be left with lots of little clumps. Very unappealing. Toward the end, this is less important. Then return the mixture to the remaining milk in the saucepan while the saucepan is off the heat.

Return the saucepan to the heat. Using a wooden spoon or a flexible silicone spatula, stir the custard continuously for several minutes, being sure to thoroughly clear the sides and bottom of the pan during the process. (You are being careful for the same reason you were careful when adding the hot milk to the yolks). As it heats and nears the thickening point, faint whiffs of steam will appear. It will not seem much thicker, but it will be noticeable as you have been paying careful attention. Remove it from the heat to test it. Dip a spoon in and run your finger across the back. The custard should leave a trail when it is fully cooked. Don't stress over whether your eggs are absolutely positively up to whatever temperature you think is best. If the custard has thickened slightly and leaves the trail, it is done. If you continue to cook, you may regret it.

Pour the custard out into a clean bowl (you can set a sieve over the bowl to catch any bits of coagulated egg), and set the bowl inside another larger bowl set up as an ice bath (lot of ice, just enough water to make it fluid). Stir in the butter and vanilla. Continue to stir to bring the custard to room temperature and refrigerate until completely chilled. Or, if you need it sooner, keep stirring it in the ice bath until it's completely chilled.

To serve, set several strawberries in the bottom of a small dish (we typically use half-cup ramekins) and drizzle with enough custard to nearly cover. Enjoy!

*If you don't have a heavy-bottomed saucepan, you can try one of two things:
1. Do everything over medium-low, and be especially vigilant during the stirring time, never letting up.
2. Set your saucepan inside a larger pan over heat. I've never tried this, but I think it might work. It might burn your other pan, too, though. I really don't know. You could maybe trying adding a bit of water to that pan.

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