Creme brulee is the dessert of choice at many upscale restaurants, but crème caramel is another classic French dessert that deserves at least as much time in the spotlight. Crème Caramel is a custard that is baked with a layer of caramel on the bottom, rather than added on top as it is found in a creme brulee. You will probably also recognize crème caramel as flan or caramel custard, as it is called in many other countries that enjoy this delicious dessert.
Crème caramel is one of those desserts that looks like it should be very difficult to make, but is much easier than you would think. It starts out with caramel-lined ramekins, since the caramel layer is on the bottom of this dessert. The caramel sauce is made simply by cooking sugar until it turns a dark golden color, then it is poured into the ramekins, where it sets up into a hard layer. There is no required cooking time for the caramel – you can make it as dark or as light as you like. A medium golden color will give you a light caramel flavor, while a dark brown color will offer lots of toasted, bittersweet notes (and is a favorite of some of my French friends, who prefer their caramel very dark).
The custard is made up and poured on top of the caramel layer. The custard is flavored with vanilla and made with milk and eggs. It has a rich, velvety texture but isn’t quite as unctuous as creme brulee is, as that dessert is often made with more cream than milk. Whole milk will give you the best results, but you can still make an excellent crème caramel using a low fat milk in the custard. The whole thing is baked in a water bath, which ensures that the eggy custard won’t cook too fast and maintains its silky-smooth texture.
When the custards are baked and cooled, you simply run a sharp knife around the outer edge to release the custard from the ramekin it baked in and invert it onto a serving plate. The caramel that you poured in prior to baking will have become a sweet sauce for the custard – and one of the reasons that crème caramel is so irresistible.
Classic Crème Caramel
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
2 cups milk (pref. whole or low fat)
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
boiling water, for water bath
In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a spatula until the sugar dissolves, then turn the heat up to high and cook the sugar until it turns a dark amber color.
Immediately pour the caramel out into 6 eight-ounce ramekins, swirling the ramekins so that the caramel coats the entire bottom of the cup. Set aside and allow caramel to cool.
Preheat oven to 325F.
Bring the milk to a simmer in a medium saucepan.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs and egg yolks. When the milk comes to a simmer, slowly drizzle it into the egg mixture while whisking constantly to temper it. When all of the milk has been incorporated, whisk in vanilla extract.
Divide mixture evenly into prepared ramekins. Place ramekins into a rimmed baking dish or high-sided baking sheet. Place baking dish into the oven. Fill the dish with boiling water so that it comes about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake for 50-55 minutes, until custards are just set in the center an jiggle only slightly when the pan is moved. Allow custards to cool for 15 minutes in the water bath, then carefully transfer them to a rack to cool completely.
Store custards in the refrigerator until ready to serve. To serve, run a sharp knife around the edge of the ramekin and invert custard onto a dessert plate.