When I was 7 or 8 years old, my family spent the summer in Oxford, England. It was exciting – something new and different. We quickly settled into our rented home and established a daily routine as if we had moved there permanently. That meant my brother, sister, and I were immediately enrolled in the local primary school.
I don’t recall much about being at school. I remember the smell of flowers and gardens that lined the narrow roads in the morning on our walk to school. I remember, too, that it took me about a week before I realized that I was going to love going to school. It wasn’t for any reason that you might think – my teacher, subject matters, or new friends. It was because we were served lunch in a dining room. I was accustomed to lunches packed from home in a metal box that we ate in the classroom – no dessert in that box. However, in the dining room, there was dessert – every day! A slice of bone-dry cake drowned in the most spectacular sauce I had ever eaten in my life. It was warm, slightly thick, silky, and sweet with the even sweeter aroma of vanilla wafting out. I never forgot that wonderful delight called custard sauce.
As memorable as that was, what we were served in school was probably Bird’s custard, a popular eggless, starch-thickened, artificially flavored version of classic French crème anglaise. Crème anglaise has many names: English cream, English custard, pouring custard, sauce à la anglaise, vanilla sauce -to name a few. Pastry chefs simply call it “anglaise”.
Sauces, savory and sweet, are used to enhance and complement foods. Crème anglaise is a core sauce for pastry chefs. I think of it as a “mother sauce,” similar to the five classic mother sauces of French cuisine (Hollandaise, velouté, Espagnole, béchamel, and sauce tomate). These are foundations of an array of sauces used in the savory kitchen. Comparatively, the world of dessert sauces is smaller, but that’s okay. It’s the quality, not quantity that counts.
Original crème anglaise was from England. While famed French chef Auguste Escoffier worked there as head of the Savoy Hotel kitchen, he was credited with simplifying French recipes, many of which were written decades earlier by another famous French chef, Antonin Carême. The revised recipe changed from crème française – with starch to crème anglaise, not for where it was from, but for what was at that time the perception of something characteristically English.
Crème anglaise, as a basic formula can be transformed into a series of recipes with just a few minor adjustments. What happens if you freeze it? You’ll get a rich and creamy custard ice cream. What if you add cornstarch and boil it? You’ll make pastry cream, the filling used to perfect a fresh fruit and berry tart, layer in a Napoleon, or make an éclair swoon-worthy. If you bake crème anglaise, it becomes a baked custard or pot de crème. Take it one step further and sprinkle the baked custard with sugar. Caramelize it and voilà! Crème brȗlée. In a pinch for buttercream? Emulsify crème anglaise with butter for a heavenly version. This is just the tip of the Mother Sauce family tree. We haven’t even gotten to the generation where we’ve infused or added flavors. Where do you think chocolate bavarois comes from? Hint: Crème anglaise + chocolate + gelatin + whipped cream.
This is where crème anglaise gets complicated -ingredients, tools, and opinionated chefs. What could be so difficult about making a sauce out of milk, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla? Believe it or not, there is a constant debate among chefs regarding the milk. “Milk only!” “What are you talking about? Milk and cream!” “What? There is NO cream in crème anglaise!” and on and on it goes. When they get tired of arguing over the milk, they move on to the tools. Stirring implements, specifically. “Why are you using a rubber spatula? You’re supposed to use a wooden spoon!” “What? Who says? I never use a wooden spoon. I don’t even have one! My spatula works great!” or even better: “A whisk? What are you doing?” I would rather not stress over these points. It’s easy enough to use milk, cream, or both, depending on the finished texture and richness you want to achieve. Most pastry chefs will use half milk and half cream, although the original from Escoffier uses only milk. You should mix it with the tool that you believe gives you the best results – smooth and creamy with no lumps.
If there is anything to fret over, it should be the method. When you see recipes with easy to difficult rating systems, crème anglaise usually gets a 4 out of 5 rating, meaning it’s more challenging. While the eggs are being cooked, it can go from done to overdone in seconds. Overcooked crème anglaise is curdled and thin. You can’t salvage it.
If you have never made crème anglaise, here are a few pointers as you proceed through the recipe. At the start, one key for success is mise en place. This means all the ingredients, tools, and equipment are ready before you begin. When it’s time to incorporate the yolks into the hot milk, do so carefully. Whisk some of the milk into the yolks, then return the yolks to the pan of hot milk, whisking constantly – this is called tempering. It brings the temperature of the yolks up slowly, so the hot milk does not inadvertently cook them. Another key is to have patience and cook the sauce slowly over low heat. You will avoid the risk of overcooking the yolks. Cooking egg mixtures over higher heat causes the heat to build momentum. It makes it difficult to slow the rising temperature once the sauce is almost ready. If you can’t stop the temperature from increasing in time, your sauce will curdle when it overshoots the correct temperature.
As the sauce cooks, stirring in a figure-eight pattern will help the mixture cook evenly and not stick to the bottom of the pan. So will a rubber spatula. I find it very effective for sweeping the bottom and side of the pan, keeping it clean. When it’s time to test for the correct consistency, there is something called a nappé (to coat) test. This is where I see the point of chefs who favor using a wood spoon. A wood spoon grips the sauce nicely, so it’s easy to see the results of your test. Coat the back of the spoon or spatula with the sauce and draw your finger across it. If it holds without running into the track, the sauce ready. If you want to be precise, use an instant-read thermometer. Crème anglaise is done between 180℉ (82℃) to 185℉ (85℃).
When the sauce is ready, strain it directly over an ice bath to stop the cooking.This recipe uses an easy-to-remember ratio of 4 parts milk with 1 part each egg yolk and sugar. You can adjust ingredients as you like. Substitute a portion of the milk with cream or add more egg yolks for richness. Or adjust the sugar to your taste or to balance your dessert composition.
Crème Anglaise Recipe
Yield: about 700 grams or 3 cups
Whole Milk – 460 grams or 2 cups
Vanilla Bean (split & scraped) – 1 vanilla bean
Granulated Sugar – 115 grams or ½ cup
Egg Yolk – 115 grams or ½ cup
Place a stainless steel bowl over an ice bath. Set a fine strainer on top of the bowl. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, vanilla pod and seeds, and about half of the sugar to a boil. Cover and let steep for 10 minutes. When the milk is almost ready, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining sugar. (Old recipes instruct you to “blanchir,” or lighten the egg yolk mixture by whisking it to a pale-colored ribbon stage. This was meant to help the eggs combine easily into the hot milk and to dissolve the sugar, but it doesn’t make much difference to the final product. Whisking the egg yolk and sugar together well is sufficient). When the milk is ready, temper in the egg yolks. Over low heat, cook the sauce constantly stirring in a figure-eight pattern with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Scrape the sides and the bottom of the pan while stirring.
When the sauce is thick, test for nappé consistency. Remove the pan from the heat and continue stirring for a few seconds. (It finishes the cooking and improves the texture). Pour the sauce directly through the strainer into the bowl over the ice bath. Stir occasionally to accelerate the process. (The vanilla pod may be rinsed and dried. Put it into your sugar bin to infuse some flavor). Transfer the sauce to a covered storage container and refrigerate. It will keep for 2 to 3 days.
Crème anglaise is delicious served over fresh berries or summer fruits like peaches. Cakes, tarts, and steamed puddings are also favorites to serve it with. Let’s not forget the classic dessert Oeufs à la neige (snow eggs), billowy meringue “eggs” floating in a pool of anglaise sauce and drizzled with caramel. If you really love the sauce, you might spike it with rum and sip it from a cup. Once you master making crème anglaise, you’ll have the confidence to whip up a batch at a moment’s notice for any occasion. Divine!