This recipe is great to make ahead for a party, and the mixture of creamy custard and caramel sauce is a winner every time – and I’ve made it many, many times. People love the taste and texture (as you can see from how it’s been demolished in the picture) and are always impressed by it, although it’s really not that difficult to make.
By the way, this is not the same thing as crème brûlée, which is far richer as it’s made with cream instead of milk, and which requires very careful handling to create the sugar crust on top. Crème caramel is the easier and, in my opinion, equally delicious version.
The trickiest bit is making the caramel – you have to watch it like a hawk as soon as it starts changing colour to make sure it doesn’t burn. You also need to plan ahead as once it’s cooked, it needs to set for 4 – 6 hours in the fridge.
You can create one big crème caramel as I’ve done here, which is certainly the easiest and least fiddly, but if you want it to look really elegant, you can make it in individual small dishes to serve to each person, perhaps topped with a few fresh berries and with a jug of pouring cream on the table for those who fancy it.
The original recipe comes from one of my regular go-to reference books, the Reader’s Digest South African Cookbook. I pretty much stick to their proportions of egg and milk, but their recipe doesn’t create enough sauce for my liking (everyone always wants more sauce!!) so I double the sauce ingredients. The quantities here are for double the sauce, so you can follow them exactly.
The original recipe doesn’t have cinnamon in it either, but I like the taste of cinnamon and custard, so I usually sprinkle it over. You can also vary the custard flavour to your taste if you get bored of the original (which is unlikely, but you never know). Just don’t add anything acidic, like orange juice for example, or the milk may curdle. I’ve included some variations I’ve tried below – feel free to experiment with your own too.
- 1¼c sugar
- 4T water
- 6 eggs
- 1l milk – full cream is the nicest
- Pinch salt
- 1t vanilla essence, the seeds from one vanilla pod or a squirt of NoMU’s vanilla paste
- Ground cinnamon (optional)
Preheat the oven to 160°C.
To make the sauce, place a cup of the sugar (i.e. not all of it – you need some for the custard too) in a saucepan with the water.
Give it a brief stir, then bring it to the boil without stirring it any further.
Now leave it on the heat to caramelise, again without stirring. You’ll notice that it starts to change colour and when it does, you can give the pot a very gentle swirl – not a stir – to spread the heat and colour a bit.
Leave it to boil further until it reaches a deep caramel colour, which can take between 5 and 10 minutes. Note: you need to watch it like a hawk as soon as it starts changing colour – it can go from nearly there to burnt in about 10 seconds!
While you wait:
Fill a large flat oven-proof container with a couple of centimetres of water and place it in the oven to warm up. The container should be big enough to hold the dish you’ll be putting your crème caramel in, leaving some space around it. A roasting tray or a large, flat casserole dish works well. This is called a bain-marie and it helps the custard to get that lovely smooth texture. (Notice the reflection of my kitchen cabinet in the water :-))
Butter either an oven-proof dish that is large enough to hold at least 1,5l of liquid (preferably 2l to give you some wiggle room when you move it) or individual ramekins if you’re going the elegant route.
Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl (there’s always one yolk that breaks!) and add the remaining ¼c of sugar.
Whisk the two together fairly well. The sugar won’t dissolve completely but that’s fine.
Add the milk, salt and vanilla to the egg and whisk well again.
Be sure to keep an eye on the caramel while you’re busy, especially towards the end. I usually take it off when it looks like this, which is pretty well caramelised and with a tiny taste of bitterness, which I think offsets the sweetness.
You can take it off a bit earlier but not later – if it gets much darker than this, it will be very bitter. And yes, it has happened before that I’ve been distracted, let it go too far and had to start again [sigh].
Very carefully, as hot sugar is VERY hot, pour the caramel into the buttered dish/es and tip the dish/es to swirl it around and coat the bottom.
As soon as you’ve done that, pour boiling water into the pot you cooked the caramel in as it starts setting immediately. If you leave it to soak while you’re busy, it will be much easier to clean later.
Now pour the egg and milk mixture on top of the caramel in the bowl.
Very gently, and being careful not to burn your hands on the bottom of the bowl (which will now be quite hot due to the caramel), move the bowl to the water-filled container in the oven. The water should come about half-way up the sides of the crème caramel dish so if it’s a bit low, use a jug to pour some more hot water in. Just make sure none of the water gets into the egg and milk or you’ll end up with very watery custard.
Depending on your oven, it might be easier to take the whole thing out the oven, put the bowl into the water, and then put the whole thing slowly back in, being careful not to slop water into the egg mixture as you do so.
Leave it to cook slowly for 45 minutes to an hour (individual ones will take less time, around 25 – 30 minutes), depending on the depth of your crème caramel bowl/s. It’s done when you can put a knife into the centre and it comes out clean.
Again very carefully using oven gloves or a couple of cloths, and taking care not to get water into it, remove the crème caramel bowl from the water and put it on a cooling rack.
Sprinkle cinnamon over the cooked crème caramel and leave it to cool.
Once it’s cooled, carefully transfer it to the fridge and leave it to set for 4 – 6 hours or overnight.
When you serve it, give each person some caramel along with their crème. It’s delicious as is, or with a bit of pouring cream and/or fresh berries.
Use about 1T of very strong brewed coffee or dissolve 1T of instant coffee in about 1T hot water. Add it to the eggs along with the milk. The key is not to add too much extra liquid or you may end up with watery custard.
Crush about 6 cardamom pods and remove the seeds. Add the seeds to a small saucepan with about half a cup of the milk and warm very gently on the stove. Remove from heat as soon as the milk is hot (don’t let it boil), then let it sit until it’s just about cool again so the cardamom can flavour the milk. If you don’t fancy seeds in your custard, you may want to strain them out before you add the flavoured milk to the eggs, along with the rest of the milk.
© Alexandra Lawrence and Inspired Nourishment, 2015