A caramel custard with a nice, rich texture is a fool-proof dish that is almost always satisfying no matter whether you pay hundreds of rupees for it or whether you make it yourself at home.It is a dessert that is unquestionably Western in origin. And yet, you will find it served at restaurants all over India, including small town places where nothing else on the menu is remotely Western. It is a dish you will find at top restaurants and one which grand pastry chefs will make. But it is also the one Western dessert that many Indian housewives will have no problem in cooking at home.
What’s more, you will sometimes be hard pressed to tell the difference between the version served up by your aunt in her small suburban kitchen and the version made by some fancy chef in a tall white hat.
Many of us grew up eating the crème caramel even if we didn’t always call it that. We may have known it as a caramel custard or as a caramel pudding. But whatever you call it, the dish is the same. I asked Rohit Sangwan, executive sous chef at Bombay’s Taj Lands End and, for my money, India’s best pastry chef, what made the dessert such a hit with Indians.
Rohit reckons that it is the sweetness. In his experience, the Indian attitude to desserts is shaped by Indian mithai. And because our mithai is so much sweeter than Western desserts, we like our puddings to be as sweet as possible. I have another theory. I think it has to do with texture. We may enjoy cakes and pastries, but we are not that keen on the texture of baked maida. Our own sweets use no pastry at all. So we like desserts that are not based on maida.
Moreover, our sweets tend to be made from milk, whether it is shrikhand or sandesh or even the rossogolla. Essentially, Indians think of pudding as something made with milk and sugar. And a crème caramel is really no more than milk and sugar with some eggs thrown in. When you bite into it, you get a nice clean feeling without the crumbly-pastry nature of most pies and cakes.
Then, of course, there is the simplicity factor. Any fool can make a crème caramel. All you need to do is to make a custard with milk, eggs and sugar (and a drop of vanilla essence) and to then cook it in a water bath or a double boiler. You don’t need skill. You don’t need to understand baking. You don’t even need an oven – and, until recently, most Indian kitchens did not come equipped with ovens of any kind.
What makes for a good crème caramel? In my experience, the basic difference between a successful crème caramel and a failure is the consistency. A great crème caramel is firm, but quivers slightly when your spoon first goes in. It always slices easily without collapsing. A bad crème caramel is thin, has a slight curdled milk quality, does not retain its shape and falls apart when you try and eat it.
Rohit says that the difference between good and bad is not really one of technique. The trick lies in the ingredients. If your milk is the thin, watered-down stuff that some doodhwallahs provide, then it is almost impossible to make a good crème caramel. Buy milk from a reputed dairy and your dessert will succeed. Plus, he adds, it has to do with the eggs. Sometimes people cheat and add too few eggs with consequences that are fatal for the consistency of the crème caramel.
When fancy chefs get in on the act, there is not much they can do with the basic structure of the dessert. There are only two parts of the recipe that provide room for manoeuvre. The first is the caramel. In a classic crème caramel, a caramel sauce (i.e. a sugar sauce) will go into the dish before the custard is poured in to give the dessert its brown top. Top chefs muck around with the caramel sauce, adding ingredients here and there to make it seem fancier. (It is not uncommon to try and add an orange flavour, though frankly, I think this is a waste of time.) The other option is to add flavour to the custard. Professional chefs should not use vanilla essence, which is usually synthetic in origin, and should prefer real vanilla. But they can also add nutmeg and other spices in an effort to make the dish seem grander.
As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of fancy crème caramels. Give me a simple caramel custard with a nice, rich texture and I will often prefer it to nearly everything else on the dessert menu. It is a fool-proof dish that is almost always satisfying no matter whether you pay hundreds of rupees for it or whether you make it yourself at home for a fraction of the cost.
There was a time, in the 1970s, when chefs built on the popularity of the crème caramel to introduce diners to a fancier version: the crème brulee. By the ’80s, the crème brulee was ubiquitous on restaurant menus all over the world. In the ’90s, its popularity began to recede and though you still find it on many menus today, chefs try and avoid straightforward crème brulees because they’ve become so common.
So, when it does turn up on menus these days, it is usually in some tarted-up form with fruit or dry fruit flavouring (apricots, for instance) or reeling under the influence of some kind of alcohol (a whiskey crème brulee, for example).
Unlike a crème caramel, a crème brulee is not a dish for the home cook. For a start, it uses cream over milk (in Rohit Sangwan’s version, an astonishing amount of cream!), which is only fair because the name itself means ‘burnt cream’ in French. Secondly, the dish’s signature is a hard crust of sugar which, in theory, you can get by placing the dessert under the grill once you’ve sprinkled it with sugar. In reality, however, you only get a proper crust if you put a blow torch to the sugar. And most kitchens, even in the West, do not come equipped with blow torches.
Like all caramel desserts, there is a controversy over the origins of the crème brulee. The English claim that they invented it. (But then, so do the Spanish.) The French laugh away this claim and point to the name which is distinctively French.
What is clear is that Trinity, a college in the English university town of Cambridge, served a variation of the crème brulee over a century ago. Chefs would bake a custard, would sprinkle sugar on it, and would then brand it with the Trinity crest. But did Trinity’s chefs actually invent it? Or were they adapting an existing dessert?
Trinity College itself makes no claims for the invention of the crème brulee. It says that the dessert already existed by the time the college’s variation was introduced.
These days, crème brulees tend to be made in the bakery sections of most hotels. They are then refrigerated for several days until somebody orders one. At that stage, the restaurant in question takes it out of the fridge and either puts it under the salamander or blow-torches it. The result is usually a crème brulee that may be warm at the top but is cold at the centre and is, therefore, not terribly appetising.
Nearly a decade ago, I got into an argument with a chef at a Delhi hotel about the right temperature for a crème brulee. It was meant to be a warm dessert, I said. It was completely wrong to serve it ice cold with a warm crust on top. No, said the chef, the recipe required the dessert to be refrigerated overnight.
I checked with Rohit about the Lands End crème brulees. He says that he does not like refrigerating his brulees for exactly the reasons I mentioned. He makes his crème brulees fresh and then leaves them to set at room temperature for five to six hours. The blow-torching happens right at the end. As a chef, he has a technical objection to refrigeration. According to him, a refrigerated crème brulee will have lots of moisture and so, no matter how much blow-torching you do, the crust will never get hard enough to make a satisfying crunch when you push your spoon into it.
Rohit also makes another point that had not occurred to me. In his experience, vegetarians prefer crème brulees to crème caramels because of the egg factor. Both desserts are made with eggs of course – you can’t make a real custard without them. But a crème caramel tends to smell and taste slightly of egg white which makes many vegetarians a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, because a crème brulee depends on egg yolks, it has no real egg smell.
There was a phase when I loved crème brulees. But as I get older I find that they are too rich for me. Oh yes, those golden crusts are a delight but once you break through, the sheer richness of the cream can be a little overwhelming.
So, give me a nice crème caramel any time! Rohit says that Indian chefs tend to put too much sugar in their custards, forgetting that the caramel sauce will also add lots of sweetness. He reckons that a crème caramel, properly made with less sugar, lots of eggs and good quality milk, is hard to beat.
I know I agree. And so, I think, do millions of Indians.
1,000 ml milk
2 vanilla pods
11 whole eggs
200 g sugar
150 g sugar for making caramel
Caramel: Pour the sugar in a pan and cook on a slow flame. Once the sugar turns golden brown, remove from flame and very carefully pour into moulds.
For the custard: Pre heat the oven to 150C; Boil milk with slit vanilla pods. Meanwhile, mix the egg and sugar together lightly, just enough to combine them. Pour the boiled milk over the eggs and sugar and strain.
Baking: Pour custard over caramel and place the moulds in baking tray half filled with water. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the custard is set. To test, gently shake the ramekins; the custard should not wobble.
If you are not sure, you can insert a knife to see if the custard is cooked in the centre of the dish.
Demould and serve chilled upside down.
800 ml double cream
200 ml milk
3 vanilla pods
10 egg yolks
100 g caster sugar
150 g caster sugar for glazing
Pre heat the oven to 150C. Heat the cream and milk in a saucepan. Slit vanilla pods open lengthways. Using the back of a knife, scrape the seeds from inside the pod into the cream. Mix the egg yolks and sugar (100 g) together, pour the boiled cream over the egg yolk mixture and keep mixing.
Strain and fill the dish with the custard. Fill a baking tray with cold water to 2/3rds of the way up the sides of the ramekins, place in the oven; bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Place the baked ramekins on a small tray. Cool. Using a teaspoon, spread sugar (150 g) over the top of the custard. With a blowtorch or OTG (with only the top filament put on), burn the sugar until it melts to create a thin sheet of golden caramel.
- From HT Brunch, April 10
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