One of the most famous of all Spanish Catalan desserts, crèma catalana is a simple stovetop-cooked custard served in shallow terra-cotta cazuelitas. A very hot salamander (a small kitchen iron with a long handle) 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, which dates back more than a hundred years, 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. (David Kinch, chef-owner of the celebrated Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, California, who worked previously at the Catalan restaurant Sent Sovi, confirmed to me that, in fact, some old Catalan culinary texts suggest this type of dual cooking.)
Interestingly, this second step brings the recipe close to the famous crème brûlée, but there are two main differences: Crema catalana is not baked in a bain-marie or water bath; it’s made with a mixture of milk and cream, which makes it lighter than the French version, which is usually made entirely of heavy cream.
You can purchase cazuelitas along with a salamander or branding iron from La Tienda. See the notes for tips on how to use the salamander and also how to finish the dish with a kitchen blowtorch or a gas broiler.–Paula Wolfert
Special Equipment: A 3-quart glazed or unglazed earthenware or ceramic flameware saucepan or casserole, or 6 earthenware cazuelitas or very shallow porcelain or stoneware baking dishes, 6 ounces each, and about 5 inches in diameter. If using an electric or ceramic stovetop, be sure to use a heat diffuser with the clay pot.
Catalan Custard Recipe
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- 1 quart whole milk
- 1 piece (2 inches) vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 1 long strip lemon zest
- 1/2 cup egg yolks (7 or 8 yolks)
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 6 tablespoons turbinado sugar
- 1. Pour the milk into the earthenware saucepan and set over low heat. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and throw in the pod as well. Add the lemon zest, raise the heat to medium-low, and cook until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan. Transfer the hot saucepan to a wooden surface or folded kitchen towel to prevent cracking 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 and discard the flavorings.
- 3. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and cornstarch. Beat until smooth, creamy, and pale in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in about 1 cup of the hot milk. Scrape the egg yolk mixture into the remaining milk in the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, until the custard is creamy and thick enough to coat a wooden spoon thickly. Do not allow to boil.
- 4. Arrange the cazuelitas on a jelly roll 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 cazuelitas 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 turbinado sugar evenly over each custard. Caramelize in any of the three ways described below, and serve at once.
- To caramelize using an iron salamander
- Place the salamander over a high flame on a gas stovetop, on the coil of an electric burner set to high, or on a flat glass-topped electric stove. Heat for at least 5 minutes. Working on one crema at a time, apply the hot round portion directly to the sugar and hold until sizzling and smoking. The moment you lift the salamander, the sugar topping will turn glassy. Wipe the salamander with a damp cloth; then return it to reheat for a few minutes before glazing the next crema. The cremas will retain their glassy crust for about 20 minutes, so you should have enough time to finish them all off. To clean your salamander, let it cool down completely, rinse under hot water, and scrub with a pumice stone until smooth; then rinse again and dry thoroughly.
- 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.
- 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.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:
- Goat Cheese Custard Recipe with Strawberries in Red Wine Syrup from David Lebovitz
- Vanilla Custards with Roasted Blueberries from Smitten Kitchen
- Portuguese Custard Tarts from Leite's Culinaria
- Pear and Vanilla Cake with Custard from Leite's Culinaria
Catalan Custard Recipe © 2009 Paula Wolfert. Photo © 2009 Ed Anderson. All rights reserved.