~ Silky Smooth Creme Caramel (Crema Caramella) ~
Meet my husband Joe's favorite dessert. I don't mean sort-of his favorite. It's his all-time favorite. It became incredibly popular in the United States the early 1960's when Mrs. John F. Kennedy hired a French Chef to oversee the White House kitchen. Everybody who wanted wanted to "be like Jackie" was off buying French ramekins and learning words like "bain-marie"!
A bit about creme caramel: Creme caramel is a sophisticated dessert that is eaten around the world, but, was made famous in the later part of the 20th century in French restaurants. It is a silky-smooth custard that is gently baked/steamed in a caramel-coated mold or in individual porcelain ramekins. When slightly warm or room temperature the delicate custard is turned out onto its serving plate. It emerges elegantly-glazed and exquisitely-sauced with the caramel from the bottom of the mold. This is the direct opposite of its rustic cousin, creme brulee, which is a similarly-baked custard with a hard caramel shell on the top that is served and eaten in the vessel in which it is baked. In France, creme caramel is also referred to as "creme renversee", in Italy it is called "crema caramella", and, if you're in Spain, it is "flan" you are looking for. It's an exquisite dessert that comes with a built-in elegant presentation. When prepared using individual ramekins, it is conveniently portioned as well, so serving it is a dream come true!
The first time we ever tasted it was in 1980. Joe and I were in Los Angeles and were staying at the recently built Bonaventure Hotel. We were having dinner in The Top of The Bonaventure Restaurant, which is located on the 35th floor and top story of this stunningly beautiful hotel. There's more: the entire restaurant and bar revolve 360 degrees every hour, giving you a panoramic view of the entire city. As we were finishing off a bottle of champagne, it came time to order dessert. I wasn't sure I wanted dessert and our waiter suggested we split a creme caramel between the two of us. We both loved it and thanked our waiter for his suggestion. What he said next, was/is the best creme caramel information anyone can/could share: "Ours is exquisite. Chef makes it fresh every morning, it is never refrigerated, and, it is always served the same day it is made." -- RULES TO LIVE BY!!!
Creme Caramel 101: It's always served the same day it is made!
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup cold water
For the custard:
3 cups heavy or whipping cream
2 whole vanilla beans, cut/split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation
3/4 cup sugar
3 jumbo eggs
6 jumbo egg yolks
~ Step 1. To prepare the caramel: Place 8, 6-ounce ramekins in the bottom of a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. Prepare a "bain-marie", or water bath, by filling the baking pan with enough tepid water to half the height of the ramekins. Set aside while preparing the caramel and the custard.
Note: Cooking in a "bain-marie", or a water bath, is a technique designed to gently cook, either in the oven or on the stovetop, delicate dishes such as custards, sauces and savory mousses without separating or curdling them. It can also be used to keep delicate sauces and foods warm.
~ Step 2. In a 1 1/2-quart, stainless steel saucepan, place 1 1/2 cups of sugar and add 1/4 cup of water. Stir briefly, until the sugar is dissolved.
DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, STIR THE SIMMERING MIXTURE!
Everyone wants to do it -- don't. It causes sugar crystals to build up around the sides of the pan and the caramel burns.
Continue to simmer rapidly until mixture is amber in color, about 8-10 minutes. DO NOT STIR!
Hot caramel is dangerous! Be very careful! Do not attempt to touch it or taste it!
~ Step 4. Carefully pour and distribute the caramel into the bottoms of the ramekins.
Note: To clean the saucepan easily, set it aside to cool and simply run it through the dishwasher!
Note: I am often asked if it's ok to skip the vanilla beans. Some say they can't find them, others complain about their cost. That's valid. Making this dessert with extract alone is just fine!
~ Step 6. In the same 1 1/2-quart saucepan used above, stir together the cream, vanilla beans, empty pods, vanilla extract and sugar.
~ Step 7. In an 8-quart measuring container, whisk the eggs and egg yolks. In very small increments at first, then in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly, add the cream mixture to the eggs.
Note: Adding too much hot cream mixture at first can cause the eggs to "scramble", so error on the side of less for the first couple of additions.
~ Step 8. Slowly pour custard into the ramekins, filling each to just short of the brim.
~ Step 9. Place baking pan on center rack of preheated 320-325 degree oven and bake for 40-45 minutes. Custard will be just set in the center and just short of beginning to brown.
Do not over bake!
Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely in bain-marie, about 2 hours. Remove from water bath and set aside, uncovered, until serving time (6-8 hours).
~ Step 10. To serve, run a sharp knife around the inside perimeter of each ramekin, place a dessert plate firmly over the top of each ramekin and invert. Allow to rest about 30-45 seconds. If the creme caramel doesn't immediately drop down onto the dessert plate, give it a little shake to break the vacuum. Lift and remove each ramekin, allowing the golden caramel sauce to form a puddle in the bottom of the plate.
Serve immediately, savoring each and every silky-smooth bite:
Special Equipment List: 8, 6-ounce ramekins; 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan; 1 1/2-quart saucepan w/lid, preferably stainless steel; kitchen shears; paring knife; slotted spoon; 8-cup measuring container; whisk; paring knife
Cook's Note: What our waiter at The Top of the Bonaventure shared with us that evening is the truth. Refrigerating creme caramel absolutely compromises its texture, turning it from silky smooth to somewhat rubbery. Before ordering it in a restaurant always ask your server, "has the creme caramel been made fresh today and has it been refrigerated?"
If you like creme caramel or creme brulee, you are obviously a lover of pastry cream in general. To learn how I make mine, check out my recipe for ~ Sweet Dreams: Creme Patissiere (Pastry Cream) ~ in Categories 6, 15 or 21!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)