I have this never-ending list of foods that I want to make. I’m pretty good at narrowing down my choices and deciding what to cook on any given day. But when it comes to baking, well, that’s another story! I admit I spend a good deal of my downtime trying to decide what to bake because there are always so many options. Seriously, it’s an obsession! In recent weeks, I have considered making everything from a charlotte and bienenstich to challah and hot cross buns. Every day, more ideas pop into my mind!
If I had my way, I’d probably be making some kind of cake or pastry every day! But after having had more than my fair share of the carrot cake with browned butter cream cheese frosting and devouring a bunch of Persian cream-filled latifeh cookies that I made recently, I figured I’d satisfy my itch to bake (and appetite) with something relatively “light”. So I settled on making crème caramel.
Like crème brûlée, clafoutis and egg tarts, crème caramel is considered a type of custard dessert. Custards, made of eggs and/or egg yolks and milk or cream, are not only tasty, but they are relatively quick and easy to whip up (a real bonus when you’re short on time).
Although crème caramel is considered a French classic, there is some debate as to whether its origins are French or Spanish. Regardless, the popularity of this custard dessert has spread beyond Europe to the rest of the world. In Spain and the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America (and also the U.S.), crème caramel is known (quite confusingly, rather) as flan. You can find many variations of flan (using cream cheese, condensed milk, coconut milk, evaporated milk…) in Mexico and throughout Central and South America and the islands of the Caribbean.
In Malaysia, this much-loved dessert is known as caramel custard. There’s a famous old-school coffee shop, Restoran Thean Chun, in my family’s hometown, Ipoh, where I sometimes go when I’m in town to have, amongst other food, their famous caramel custard. I’ve wondered how crème caramel made its way to Malaysia. I’ve read that it was introduced by the Portuguese, who also did the same in India, where this dessert is ubiquitous, especially in the coastal cities. The Philippines, influenced by Spain, has leche flan. You can also find crème caramel in Vietnam, a former French colony. It’s also apparently a popular dessert (known as “purin”) in Japan!
It’s really not hard to make crème caramel, and it takes no time at all – that’s what I love about it! There are 2 parts to making this dessert. First, you want to heat up some sugar and water to make a caramel, and pour a thin layer onto the bottoms of the ramekins and leave them aside to set.
Then you whisk the heated milk mixture into the egg and sugar mixture.
Pour the mixture into ramekins and place them in a hot water bath and they’re ready to be baked!
Once baked and cooled, they need to be chilled.
Before serving, run a knife around the edge of the crème caramel and turn it over onto a plate. And that’s it!
This traditional crème caramel will always remain a favourite. However, you can also use this recipe as a base and play around with the flavours. I like substituting with orange zest instead and adding a dash of Grand Marnier! Or, try replacing some of the whole milk with coconut milk. What about chocolate crème caramel or matcha?!
CREME CARAMEL (serves 4)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) water
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
a pinch of lemon zest
1. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
2. In a small saucepan, cook 125g of sugar over medium low heat, stirring until the sugar changes colour and gets foamy. Carefully add in the water, a little at a time, and continue stirring and cooking until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup turns a dark golden brown (be careful not to burn it!). Pour an equal amount into each of four 3.5-inch (9 cm) ramekins. Leave aside to set.
3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolk and 50g of sugar.
4. In another saucepan, boil the milk, vanilla and zest. Remove from heat and pour the milk mixture into the egg mixture, while continuing to whisk.
5. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl/measuring cup with spout. Pour an equal amount of the mixture into each of the ramekins.
6. Place the ramekins in a baking dish. Pour hot water into the baking dish until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
7. Bake for about 40 minutes or until set. Once out of the oven, remove the ramekins and allow to cool. Then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
8. Run a thin knife around the edge of the custard, then carefully invert onto a plate.