Creme Anglaise is not custard. It is french for ‘English Cream’ not ‘custard.’ Custard comes from a packet or jar and contains flavoured and coloured cornstarch, which is mixed with a little cold milk and poured into hot milk and stirred. Instant custard. Creme Anglaise is a difficult procedure of heating up cream or milk to boiling point, then reducing the heat, and tempering in a mix of egg yolks and sugar, with vanilla seeds. The mix has to then be monitored closely while stirring, as to not let it curdle (but cook the eggs), and finally refrigerated. If done with precision, you can heat up the mix so that when it cools it sets and becomes a pastry cream.
I have attempted this four times – and failed twice, although in my defence it happened in one day. We overcooked it and it became curdled beyond repair (by the time I found the antidote of putting the mix in ice, or adding a spoon or two of cold water, my creme anglaise looked like Moses had done his ‘parting the water’ act it had curdled so bad). We tossed it down the sink before the guests waiting in the lounge could see, and quickly tried again, this time with caution and a double boiler (the safer method). Of course, the result was now we undercooked it and it never materialized beyond a broth consistency.
Creme Anglaise is not for the faint hearted.
There are some tricks of adding a touch of flour that can reduce the possibilities of everything going wrong. This helps. But I recently decided to ‘get over my fear’ when I got a new cookbook for Christmas. Beluga, a rather prim place in town, published a cookbook that revolved around their signature dishes. One of the recipes in desserts was ‘Blueberry Mille Feuille. According to Google Translate, this is French, for “Blueberry Mille Feuille.”
In reality this is just shop-bought puff pastry smothered in Creme Anglaise, with blueberries, layered. In the book they layered it twice and had thinner helpings of the Creme Anglaise. They also baked the pastry with a tray above it so it wouldn’t ‘puff’ as much and be more controlled, and I guess professional. Personally I’m all about being excessive and decadent, which involves ladles of custard, puffing the pastry as much as possible and engorging with richness and delight. Not exactly the type of pudding you should be eating in front of the Queen, with globules of delicious yellow dripping and flakes of perfectly browned (with castor sugar) pastry flying everywhere. Then again, you know what? The Queen wasn’t invited. And I am sure if she had known what I was eating, she might have even been a bit jealous.
As we boiled up the milk and I started the process of separating the eggs, I came across an ingredient in Beluga’s recipe that I wasn’t expecting. Cornstarch. Let me write that again.
I was horrified. I did it, but I was horrified. Surely not? Cornstarch is custard, not Creme Anglaise. I know some of the recipes in my numerous books have flour in them, to help with the setting, but surely they wouldn’t go so far as to actually use the same ingredient as that ‘frowned upon’ powder the general public uses, in a recipe that relies on the delicateness of a temperamental egg yolk.
My face almost twisted in a snobbery culinary disgust. I’m no chef, but I knew this was somehow stepping over some line. Did the master chefs at Beluga not have faith in the common household cook to make it the way the French intended, that they strayed so far away from the very essence of Creme Anglaise to make it idiot proof?
This led to some rather debatable discussion between me and my kitchen assistant, as the recipe was almost directly attacking my own, shall we say, custard ethics. If I wanted cornstarch custard I would use custard powder, but I didn’t want custard powder, I want a gorgeous vanilla flavoured filling to my pastry and blueberries.
But what I can’t deny is that it did work. It also set incredibly well. I was able to smother the pastry and it looked great. Should I dare to even confess? It tasted really good as well. The entire time while eating I was trying to find something in the consistency, or flavour to be able to say “I can taste a difference” but I couldn’t. Because the egg yolks were still present and the vanilla alive and fresh, the fact that it had cornstarch in it didn’t take anything away from the end product. It was just an easier recipe, something that the taster wouldn’t know, but the chef would be grateful for.
So does that saying “what they don’t know won’t kill them” and “ignorance is bliss” apply here? Perhaps someone with distinct taste buds like Gordon Ramsay might be able to spot the difference and announce it, if he were present at my dining room table, but otherwise no one else would know. I will say that I feel like I have somehow cheated, but then again it is not like I haven’t made the original and failed. I have made it twice with perfection. After proving I can make it as good as anybody else am I not allowed to use the easier method.
Maybe this one time. But if you catch me using tomato sauce (or ketchup) in my cooking, retire me.