The Elemental Crème Anglaise
by Kate Heyhoe
Eggs are like culinary chemistry sets in a shell. Who would believe that within that pristine white package lies the secret ingredient for fluffy meringues, elegant omelets, tangy mayonnaise, crisp crepes and dreamy, creamy custards?
Chefs know that desserts made with custards punch our comfort-food button. One bite of a velvety crème brûlèe or berries floating in a silky, thick vanilla cream sauce, and patrons swoon. It's elemental: custards can guarantee dessert success.
The queen of custard sauces is crème anglaise. She's rich, smooth, and more than comforting. When paired with flavors like hazelnut, chocolate, coffee or fruit, she becomes absolutely seductive. Thick or thin, she's one of the indispensable sauces in a dessert chef's repertoire.
A pot of crème anglaise is the first step to elegant simplicity. Spoon it over fresh fruit, float meringues in it, layer it with cake to make a trifle. Pour it on a plate, drizzle over a ring of chocolate sauce, then drag a toothpick from center to edge like spokes, and you've made a show-stopping design often served by world-class chefs.
Mastering the Sauce
To make crème anglaise, you need egg yolks, milk and/or cream, and sugar. Vanilla bean is the traditional flavoring agent, the foundation on which other layers of flavors can be built. Crème anglaise is not only versatile, it's astonishingly easy to make—once you know what you're doing. But beware: a little bit too much heat and your comforting, creamy sauce can turn to watery, scrambled eggs in a flash.
Double-boiler or saucepan? Professional chefs live dangerously: they like to make crème anglaise in a saucepan, directly over the burner. Less adventuresome cooks would be wise to rely on a double-boiler, or to create a double-boiler by placing a heatproof bowl on a pot over (not in) heated water. Why? Because the gentle steam of the water cooks the egg yolks at a low but consistent temperature.
Process: When heated, the proteins in egg yolks solidify. Ideally, these proteins will thicken the liquid in which they're suspended.
Egg yolks: When adding eggs to a milk/cream-based mixture, warm the mixture but don't let the mixture rise above 150 degrees F. or the eggs may curdle. Likewise, don't add the eggs all at once; whisk them in gradually. Once added, egg yolks should be stirred constantly, preferably with a whisk.
Proportions: Usually 2 egg yolks plus 2 tablespoons sugar to 1 cup of milk will produce a barely thick sauce. Additional egg yolks ensure a thicker sauce. Sugar makes the sauce less firm, so more eggs may be required when using greater amounts of sugar, and too much sugar can even prevent setting. Acidic ingredients, such as tart fruits and wine, also impede egg proteins from solidifying, so use more egg yolks with them. Rule of thumb: more sugar and more acid means adding more egg yolks.
Doneness: After about 12 minutes pay attention: the custard is likely a few degrees away from being done. When properly cooked, the sauce should coat the back of a metal spoon-dragging your finger across the spoon will leave a line. A thermometer should hover just below 180 degrees F., the temperature at which egg proteins coagulate.
Troubleshooting: What can go wrong? Time and temperature matter. Heating too fast, too long, on too high or low a heat, or not stirring enough may result in a sauce that never thickens, a sauce that curdles, or a sauce that separates. Once the eggs are added, stir constantly. If the sauce starts to show signs of curdling, it can still be rescued: remove it from the heat and whisk until smooth. In some cases, small amounts of curd can simply be strained out. To prevent a skin from forming on the sauce, press plastic wrap onto the surface of the custard.
Weeping: If the custard starts to separate after cooking, as when releasing water on a previously beautiful plated dessert, it's been cooked too long (even if cooked below 180 degrees F.) or at too high a temperature (185 degrees F.).
Other names: English custard, custard sauce, soft custard, boiled custard
Related sauces: Zabaglione, sabayon, lemon curd (similar in use of egg yolks)
Crème anglaise is the common focal point around which great chefs build irresistible signature desserts. James Peterson's essential book Sauces includes the following step-by-step guide to making it. All you need now is fresh fruit, cake or a dark chocolate sauce to make your own 4-star desserts.
Kate's Global Kitchen, December 2001
12/01/01 Holiday Food Gifts &
12/08/01 The Elemental Crème Anglaise
12/15/01 A Praline Primer
12/22/01 Nutmeg: A Gift from Grenada
12/29/01 Famous Last Words: The Lighter Side of Food
(includes Cozy New Year's Recipes)
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created 2001 and modified November 2006.