THE creme de la creme of dessert sauces, creme anglaise reigns in the pastry kitchen -- though its fancy title belies the fact that it's only a simple stove-top custard.
Transcendently smooth, a cool match for a catalog of desserts, creme anglaise is at once as comforting as a homey pudding and as intoxicating as the intricately plated desserts it so often accompanies. Yet with about 15 minutes' work and with the most basic of ingredients -- milk, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla -- you'll have a sauce that can transform the last course of a meal from just good to utterly sublime.
It's easy to make: Pour milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, scrape a vanilla bean into it, bring the milk to just below a simmer -- you don't want it to boil -- then take it off the heat, cover and wait about half an hour for the milk to infuse with the vanilla.
Next, bring the milk back up to just below a simmer, and meanwhile whisk egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl. Pour about a third of the hot milk into the egg mixture, then pour the mixture back into the milk in the saucepan. This technique is known as tempering.
Begin stirring the combined ingredients over low heat. Stir the sauce constantly for the next few minutes (it should take about three or four minutes for the sauce to thicken), as this keeps the heat distributed throughout the liquid and the proteins at the bottom of the pan from curdling. And be sure to use a wooden spoon to stir the sauce.
The spoon test
WHY wooden? Unlike a metal spoon, a wooden spoon is perfect for telling you when your sauce is finished -- the sauce will coat the back of the spoon when it's reached what's called a nappe state. Lift the wooden spoon out of the sauce and run your finger across the back of it: If the line your finger draws holds, the sauce is done. That's what you're going for; the texture will be like thick cream.
As soon as the sauce is nappe, strain it into a bowl set in an ice water bath to ensure a velvety smooth texture; the bath cools it down. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming as it cools. Remove the bowl from the bath and refrigerate it until you're ready to use it, preferably overnight.
Creme anglaise is a chameleon sauce, able to undergo transformation into an almost endless array of uses -- it's the base for Bavarian creams, semifreddos and many souffles. And then there's ice cream, which in its basic form is frozen creme anglaise.
It can also be infused with any number of flavors. Add a bag of tea or a handful of broken espresso beans to the initial pan of milk. Or try citrus peel, fresh rosemary, toasted nuts, freshly crushed spices. Either add these to the vanilla bean or omit it: You can use a single flavor, or create a matrix of them.
Once chilled into velvety smoothness, creme anglaise is perfect used as a dipping sauce for homemade cookies, paired with an oven-warm blackberry tart, or serving as the shallow sea under a flotilla of meringues.
Like the old-fashioned dessert iles flottantes, or floating islands, the meringues provide a kind of kitchen symmetry by incorporating the egg whites left over from making the sauce. But unlike iles flottantes, which feature soft meringues cooked in a double boiler, this updated version relies on baked meringues to give crunchy contrast to the velvety sauce. And both sauce and meringue can be made one or even a few days ahead of time.
If you don't want your islands to float on an entire ocean, pour just a third-cup of heady hazelnut-infused creme anglaise into a soup plate and top it with a solitary crisp meringue. For textural balance and a zing of both flavor and color, roast a pint of fresh raspberries with a sprinkle of sugar, a splash of earthy hazelnut oil. Then spoon the fruit over the meringue, the garnet berries falling into the sauce like errant jewels.
Not exactly your grandmother's custard.
Total time: 15 minutes, plus infusing and cooling time
Servings: Makes 2 cups
2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean
5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1. Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and drop in the bean. Heat over medium heat until just simmering (do not boil), about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let steep half an hour. Reheat the infused milk over medium heat until almost simmering, about 3 minutes.
2. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, then temper the mixture by pouring half of the hot milk into the egg-and-sugar mixture and whisking, then pouring this back into the rest of the hot milk.
3. Stir the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. Be careful not to overcook, as it can curdle easily.