Crema Catalana: The Cream from Catalan

Crema Catalana

Cogito Ergo Sum ( I think, therefore I exist) – Rene Descartes

Our thought process can be such a powerful tool. They steady us, they trick us, they deceive us, they calm us, they make us happy and they make us sad. But above all they allow us to reason, to debate, to struggle and to question. That is, if you are indeed thinking THOSE thoughts. Often I ponder about my existence, the rational and the purpose. I think about the system, the world, the society and that individual that is me. And the more I think, the more I seem to question what is the convention. I seem to have reached a stage in life, where in I resist the norms more than I follow them. Is it teenage rebellion arriving too late or is it wisdom finally dawning on me ? Or is it the burden of expectations finally forcing me to think and escape.
I know of many many people who have done many many things to meet expectations – some their own, mostly of others. I have been part of that herd, and in some ways I feel I still am. But I know that I have started resisting as I have started thinking. Am I supposed to do it ‘coz I want it or I am expected to do it ? That look, this item, the marriage and then the baby, that house, this car, that LazyBoy and this LazySusan – is it me or is it them? And if it is them, then how often is it correct to succumb and when is it not acceptable to do so. My thoughts have made me aware of the fallacy of life and of the light that is beyond this tunnel of expectations. But can I cross and reach it or will I die trying ( or try dying)? Just like I feel sad for myself sometimes, I feel sad for all those that gave in not because they chose to do so but because the choice was wired into them. Someday, I will be free. And then, I will die in peace.
Before you think, I am losing it, let me tell you I am given to intense introspection and thoughts outside of everyday realm. You just caught me in one of those moods today and hence you read my rants 🙂 Meanwhile, the idea of this post was to capture the joy of summer that is starting to fade already. A lemony, bright yellow, chilled summer dessert that belongs to the crowd pleaser categories of flans/caramael custards/creme brulees. Hailing from the land of the Matador and jamon and Rafael Nadal and World Cup Soccer 2010 champs, this sweet dish is one of the more famous Cataln desserts. Traditionally, this is a simple stovetop-cooked custard served in shallow terra-cotta ‘cazuelitas’. A very hot salamander (a small kitchen iron with a long handle, think the old world butane torch but with some smoke :D) is used to sear the top, forming a glassy, paper-thin crust that imparts a delicious burnt sugar taste and a wonderful smoky aroma. In this version, adapted from one of my favorite sites, Liete’s Culinaria, a luxurious creaminess and depth of flavor are created through the extra step of baking the custards in a slow oven after the stovetop cooking. Only, I have no claypot “cazuelita” and no hot salamander :). And still this dessert was enough to fire up the senses and cool down the spirit. My grad school Spanish might have become an extinct talent, but I can tell you this dish is still state of the art. Buen Apetito, mi amigos y amigas !

Ingredients: Serves 6

6 Ramekins/Custard Bowls
1 quart whole milk
1tsp vanilla paste (or 1tbsp vanilla flavoring)
1 long strip lemon zest (or 1 tsp lemon zest, apprx zest of 1 medium lemon)
1/2 cup egg yolks (7 or 8 yolks)
1/4 cup + 3 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch (or 4 tbsp all purpose flour)
6 tbsp light brown sugar

1. Pour milk into the saucepan and set over low heat. Add the vanilla and lemon zest, raise heat to medium-low, and scald the mixture (i.e. cook until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan). Turn off the heat and let the flavorings steep in the milk for about 20 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 210°F (99°C). Reheat the milk over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Scoop out the long lemon zest strip is using.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and cornstarch. Whisk until smooth, creamy and pale in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in about 1 cup of the hot milk and mix well. Now scrape the egg yolk mixture into the remaining milk in the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, until the custard is creamy (think pastry cream) and thick enough to coat a wooden spoon thickly. Do not allow to boil.
4. Arrange the ramekins in a pan. Ladle the custard into them, dividing it evenly. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours or until the custard is set around the edges but still slightly jiggly in the center. Let cool, then cover each little dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
5. About 20 minutes before serving, remove the ramekins from the refrigerator and discard their plastic covers. Use a paper towel to gently blot away any surface moisture on top of each. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar evenly over each custard. Caramelize and serve at once.

To Caramelize:

1. To caramelize using a kitchen blowtorch: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for igniting your blowtorch. Hold it about 3 inches above the sugar topping so the end of the flame just touches the sugar. Use a slow rotating movement, allowing the flame to “lick” the entire surface evenly until glazed and dark brown.
2. To caramelize using a gas broiler: Preheat the broiler. Set the well-chilled custards about 5 inches below the flame and broil until the sugar surface turns deep brown. Using an electric broiler to caramelize is not recommended since by the time the sugar has glazed, the custards will lose their chill.

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