Everyone starts off in the kitchen somewhere, whether it’s spreading peanut butter thickly onto a piece of barely toasted bread, or stirring spaghetti tentatively with a long-handled wooden spoon and watching it relax into the water, or even scrambling eggs because the planned entrée for that night looks “weird.” In my case, I started with dessert. Cookies and cakes were the first things I “helped” make, which probably explains why I’ve developed such a sweet tooth over the years. Mom would let me stir batter, pour pre-measured cups of sugar, taste a beater. She was there while I jammed my thumbs into an egg trying to crack it, while I spilled powdery fluffs of flour onto the counter and sometimes the floor. She was there, though not watching, when I had my first lesson in ingredient deception: my first taste of cinnamon. A few brown grains on the counter, a small, damp index fingertip, and the sourest face dipping away from the countertop. Vanilla extract was the same way. Each time, I’m sure Mom turned and saw, and probably tried not to laugh, as I learned that in dessert as in so many things, a dose of sugar makes things better.
It seemed only fitting, then, when I embarked on the dessert selection of my sauce project, that Mom should be there. Together, in my bright, narrow kitchen, we talked and laughed and spilled and fumbled our way through crème anglaise.
Crème anglaise is essentially an all-purpose dessert sauce, and provides a base for so many lovely simple sweets. Egg yolks, cream, sugar, and some vanilla for flavor, cooked gently but whisked fervently, and you have a beautiful, rich sauce that lovingly coats the back of a spoon. Cooled, run through an ice cream machine, and shoved impatiently into a freezer, you’d have vanilla ice cream. A few more yolks and a long, slow bake in the oven, and you’d have crème brulee. Some cornstarch to thicken during the cooking process? Pastry cream. But left liquid and chilled, it makes a beautiful summer treat poured in decadent quantities over a bowl of glistening berries. And if you want to build the whole thing atop a slice of cake, well who am I to stop you? Since Mom and I are both grown-ups now, we added a whisper of bourbon to our creation, for a floral warmth and slightly more complex flavor.
I think the hardest thing about crème anglaise is waiting for it to cool so you can eat it. But the second hardest thing, which is not much of a challenge at all, is separating the eggs. This isn’t as dicey a prospect as separating the whites for a meringue or angel food cake, because a bit of white slopped in with the yolks does no damage at all. It’s just that we are after the glossy, dense fat of the yolk here, and so the light liquidy quality of the whites is better saved for something else.
I prefer to separate my eggs by plopping the yolk back and forth between the halves of shell, letting the white drip down directly into the open mouth of a zip-top freezer bag. Once most of the white has detangled itself, I add the yolk to my work bowl and move on. You can also crack the egg directly into your hand and let the white ooze down through your fingers, while the yolk stays plump and golden in your palm, but the shell method works better for me. When all the whites are contained in the baggie, I write the number and the date on the outside and freeze it for later use.
Eggs managed, it’s a simple prospect of whisking in some sugar with the yolks, heating milk and cream together, adding the warm dairy to the thick, sweetened yolks, and cooking the whole thing to a thickness like, well, melted ice cream, since that’s basically what it is. Incorporate flavorings, strain the mixture to ensure a nicely textured final product, and chill until ready to use.
Barely adapted from Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio
Makes about 1 ½ cups sauce
½ cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup milk
3 egg yolks (save the whites for another treat)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-2 teaspoons bourbon (optional)
- First, prepare an ice bath by filling a large mixing bowl with water and ice cubes. Set another bowl inside, so it rests in the bath but is in no danger of getting water inside.
- In a small pot, warm the milk and cream together to a bare simmer.
- While the dairy warms, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a medium bowl until quite thick. You want the sugar to be well incorporated to make the integration with the liquid easier.
- When the milk and cream are just simmering, slowly – and I mean slowly! – pour them into the yolk and sugar mixture, whisking the whole time. If you pour slowly and whisk assiduously, you will end up with a smooth, thick mixture. If you don’t, you will end up with scrambled egg yolks.
- Pour your smooth sauce back into the pot and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for 2-5 minutes, until the sauce is thick that when you dip in the back of a spoon and draw a line through the coat of sauce with your finger, the line remains clean.
- Add the vanilla and bourbon, stir, and remove from heat.
- Pour the sauce from the pot through a strainer and into the bowl you’ve rested in the ice bath. Whisk or stir as it cools to room temperature, then liberate from the ice bath and refrigerate until cold. Serve however you wish. I recommend a mixture of fresh berries, with or without a slice of moist cake, but a plain old spoon and no interruptions would be just fine too.