Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Crema Catalana

Creme brulee is pretty classic, and when it hits the mark it's hard to beat - creamy, rich, with the textural contrast of the smooth custard against the crunchy sugar topping - and the added bonus of having to smash your way in before you can start eating, which adds an enjoyably destructive aspect to its consumption. Crema catalana is the Spanish (more specifically Catalonian) version, which contains cinnamon and lemon and/or orange zest to flavour it, and is traditionally served on St Joseph's day. Well, until about two minutes ago I didn't know there was a St Joseph's Day, so we sadly missed that opportunity for gluttony this year (it's March 19th, in case you'd like to mark it in your calendar for next year) but we made up for it this week.

I'm not sure where the recipe came from, but I've had this in my arsenal for a while - I knew it was a keeper when we took it to dinner with friends and they all ooh-ed and aah-ed over it (although potentially they were just impressed that I had a dessert-specific blowtorch - or perhaps they were just afraid that I might scorch them if they didn't make appropriately appreciative murmurs!) so it has a place in my slightly OCD recipe folder.

The recipe is a fairly typical from-scratch custard, but the addition of cornflour means it thickens up fairly rapidly so you won't have to get too impatient.

The first step is steeping a cinnamon quill and the zest in the milk and cream - bring them to the boil then leave to infuse for an hour or so. If you don't have a cinnamon quill (or a spare hour) you can skip this step and just add some ground cinnamon.

Beat up the egg yolks (use the whites to make a brown sugar pavlova) with some sugar until they're nice and fluffy - a couple of minutes with an electric beater. Add the cornflour and quickly beat through. At the same time pop the milk/cream back on the heat and bring it back to the boil so it's all ready for tempering the eggs.

The boiling milk and cream then needs to be strained into a bowl to get the zest and cinnamon quill out - you don't want lumpy custard!

This is a good way to control the tempering - keeping it nice and slow; heating the eggs too quickly would make lumpy custard too, but these lumps would be even worse than the odd bit of errant zest. You just transfer a couple of spoonfuls of the hot milk into the eggs and stir. Rinse, repeat...

... and slowly pour the rest of the milk in, stirring all the while. Once combined transfer it back into the saucepan and return to the heat.

Stir, stir, stir, and before you know it it will thicken up remarkably. This custard definitely coats the back of a spoon!

It needs to chill for at least four hours - overnight is better, so you need to plan ahead. 

For the topping you can use normal sugar (though if you're going white sugar I'd recommend caster as it's easier to melt the finer grains) but I like a nice brown sugar - this is a tasty muscovado. If you don't have a handy blowtorch you can pop your brulees under a grill (though this doesn't work so well with the martini glass serving method!), melt sugar in a sauce pan and pour on top, or even flambe them by pouring a little hard liquor on top and lighting it (though I haven't tried these last two so can't offer advice).

We found the sugar melted more readily when it had partially dissolved from sitting on top of the custard - so sprinkling the sugar on top then leaving it alone for 5 minutes before applying flame will make your life easier.

Move the flame around the whole time you're burning - wave it back and forth, working across the surface of the custard. It takes a little while to melt the sugar but it's well worth it - just look at the delectable caramelisation:

Does dessert get any better than this? Hmm, how about chocolate creme brulee...

Crema Catalana
300ml cream
300ml milk
1 Tbsp grated orange zest
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick or ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
4 large egg yolks
80g castor sugar
2 Tbsp cornflour
Extra sugar for brulee top

Place cream, milk, cinnamon and zests in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and stand for one hour. This step can be omitted if using ground cinnamon.

Beat egg yolks and castor sugar until pale and thick. Add cornflour and beat until combined. Bring the cream mixture back to the boil and strain it into a bowl. Add 2 Tbsp of the cream mixture to the egg and stir to incorporate, then gradually add the rest. Return to the saucepan on a low heat, and stir continuously until it coats the back of a spoon. Pour into four ramekins and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Just before serving sprinkle sugar over the top of each serving and caramelise the sugar. Serves 4


  1. I could have used this a couple hours ago. I am visiting my sister and she wanted to make creme brule, and I left my recipe at home. She had one, but was slightly strange to me as I tend to bake mine in a bay marie in the oven and hers was completely stove top cooked (like this one). She had tried to make it a few times before but it hadn't set. We ended up modifying the recipe and baking it. Will let you know how it works out after we eat them tomorrow.

  2. This looks stunning - am impressed that you used the blowtorch with the martini glasses. Sounds like a delicious version of creme brulee - cinnamon and orange go beautifully together.

  3. Rose, hope yours worked out in the end! Sorry I couldn't have been a bit earlier for you. ;-)

    Laura, thanks - I was trying not to get the flame too close to the glass but it didn't seem to mind a few quick blasts. It is yummy - the flavours are quite subtle but still good - am tempted to try it with more of both just to see how it tastes with intense citrus/cinnamon.


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