1 litre milk
8 − 10 egg yolks
1 (or more) vanilla pod(s)
This is not, as I repeatedly tell my students now, English Cream. Or custard. Custard is something else entirely more horrible, powdery, icky and comforting.
English cream simply doesn’t exist in the way they mean it, so get over that one.
So, Crème anglaise is easy once, like so many things, you’ve already done it a hundred times or more. The secret – actually this can’t really be a secret any more, I’ve said it plenty of times already – is preparation. Get all your ingredients out and in place, separate your egg yolks, cut your vanilla pod in half, weigh your sugar all before you start to cook. This one depends somewhat on timing and concentration so turn off the Archers and pay attention.
Put the milk and the vanilla pod (scrape the seeds into the milk – they look nice but most of the flavour actually comes from the pod itself) on to boil first. While it’s heating – keep half an eye on it – mix together the egg yolks and sugar with a whisk. The different quantities will give you a thicker (more egg yolks) and/or sweeter (more sugar) sauce. You need to whisk them until they reach the ribbon stage – that is, when you dribble the mixture from your whisk over the surface of the sauce it leaves a trace that looks a bit like a ribbon which takes a few seconds to disappear. Also, it goes whiter than at the start – this is why the French name for this state is called ‘blancher’, whiten. And whatever you do keep whisking, never leave the sugar and egg yolks alone – they’ll ‘burn’ and the sugar crystals will become insoluble as they absorb part of the egg yolk into a ‘skin’ around them.
It should take a couple of minutes, and is more or less the time it takes the milk to boil. When the milk does boil, pour HALF of it onto the egg/sugar mixture all in one go, all the time whisking away like mad. If you don’t stir it’ll coddle and go lumpy, so STIR.
Whisk it for a few seconds, then pour this mixture back into the milk saucepan, still stirring (always stir in the vessel into which your pouring, not the other way round).
Switch to a wooden spoon and reduce the heat under the saucepan so it heats but won’t boil the mixture. You’re now looking to get to about 85C-90C – about the point where the foam which forms as soon as you mix everything together disappears. Also, when you draw a finger across the back of your wooden spoon it should leave a clear mark which the Crème anglaise doesn’t rush to re-fill. Heat it any higher – or boil it – and the proteins will coagulate, giving lumps.
When you’re satisfied, turn off the heat. If you’re not serving it immediately, KEEP STIRRING until it’s cooled right down – you can put your saucepan in a sink of cold, even iced water if you like. If you just leave it then the lumps will arrive, with friends.
If, because you haven’t paid attention, you do get lumpy custard just attack it with your stick blender and/or push it through a fine sieve. If you do want to keep it, put some cling film directly onto the surface to stop a skin forming. Back in the olden days we’d pour a little melted butter on the surface to do the same thing, but this is what is professionally known as ‘A right bloody faff’, so go with the cling film.
And leave your vanilla pod in the Crème anglaise as long as you can, it’ll keep on improving the flavour. You can replace the vanilla with other flavorings – mint, coffee, caramel, whatever. For leaf infusions like mint or lemon verbena, put the leaves into the milk, boil it and then let them infuse for as long as you can away from the heat – an hour or two is good, overnight is excellent.
Right. No excuses now – no more packet custards, OK?