Baking challenge: crème caramel

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: crème caramel.

Mary Berry's creme caramel

Crème caramel is an old-fashioned dessert, isn’t it, belonging almost to the realms of the (sadly, now) imaginary bistros of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with those heavy leather-lined seats where you are comfortably ignored once delivered of your food (and, of course, alcohol). In a more modern context I can imagine buying a small plastic tub of it from the supermarket, the caramel staining the bottom of the container deep brown, and inverting it at home. But these are acts of the imagination alone: I don’t know if I’ve eaten creme caramel before making it for this baking challenge. It does feel like the kind of gentle, nurturing nursery-type food I should have eaten as a child, however.

Crème caramel is a sister to crème brûlée: both are softly-set, only very lightly sweetened custards, composed of wholesome and nurturing ingredients: whole milk, eggs. But what a difference the outside makes: the crème brûlée is the flirty, dangerous show-off in the family, with her tempting crackled-burnt sugar crust, which has required the application of the naked (ooh la la) flame of the blowtorch (if you’re a cowboy cook who’s not using the grill, anyway) and dares you to crack into it. No one would mistake this dessert for an inhabitant of the nursery. The crème caramel is a bit more homely and dutiful compared to her glamorous sibling.

Creme caramel

You start off by making a caramel, which coats the buttered ramekins, and then a custard which bakes gently in the oven. The cups of custard must then chill completely, to be turned out a la minute. The chilled custard is silky-quivering in its delicacy, lightly drenched in a cloak of caramel syrup which adds some much-needed sweetness and intense depth to this dessert, which would otherwise be simply milky and jiggly and bland. (This contrast is especially, deliciously pronounced if you are brave enough to cook your caramel properly dark). Custard always walks a fine line between homely, nursery food and sensual indulgence. This definitely leans towards the latter – although easy to eat, it’s a dessert that celebrates rich, soft smoothness and contrast of innocently sweet custard and earthy caramel.

Don’t make the mistake I did and forget to immerse your custard-filled ramekins in their hot-water bath. I had to make these twice because I missed this vital instruction first time round. I must have skipped over the line completely because, as I transferred my first batch to the oven, I did think to myself that I would have expected a water bath to coddle the custards. In the absence of the water bath the custard took much longer to cook, surprisingly, but also set quite rubbery and hard, and had large air bubbles running through, which ruined the silky texture. A few were edible but most were relatively grim eating and were given to the worms via our compost box. This mishap aside, it was fairly easy to pull together and the desserts were exceptionally satisfying to turn out – they came out easily after a bit of coaking with a palette knife (just be careful not to angle the knife in such a way that you cut into the set custard).

Recipe below the break as always.

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