Custard Sauce – Crème Anglaise

Some swirls of custard sauceThe French name for this custard sauce is crème anglaise, which means “English cream.”  À l’anglaise is a descriptor given to many preparations in classic French cuisine.  It is in fact mildly derogatory, as it always describes the most basic of preparations.  For instance, vegetables prepared à l’anglaise are boiled, then served with butter and parsley.  Meat dishes prepared a l’angaise are also always boiled.  And crème anglaise is the most basic of dessert sauces, a pourable custard flavoured with vanilla.

So yes: this sauce is considered very ordinary within the context of classic cuisine.  It is not usually a featured component, but an accompaniment, an afterthought.

After initial preparation, crème anglaise can go on to become a number of more dignified dishes, like crème brûlée, or even ice cream.  But more on that later.

The classic method of preparation is to scald a milk-cream-vanilla mixture, temper eggs and sugar with the hot liquid, then cook the entire mix until it thickens ever so slightly.  While experienced pastry cooks can comfortably cook custard sauce on a stove top, it is much safer to cook it over a double boiler.

A double boiler is just a pot of simmering water over which sits a stainless steel bowl containing the mixture to be cooked.  Steam rises from the water, gently heating the bottom of the bowl above.  Stainless steel is preferred for the bowl as it is a good conductor.  The double-boiler cooking method is much gentler than having the mixture directly in the pot.  As discussed in the introductory post on custards, gentle cooking gives us a wide window of time during which the custard is properly cooked and mitigates the risk of over-cooking and curdling the dish.

A double boiler for cooking custard sauce

Though this is emphatically not traditional, you can actually prevent curdling in your custard sauce by adding a bit of flour or cornstarch to the mix.  The effects of starch in a custard will be explored tomorrow when we make pastry cream.

I recommend trying to cook custard sauce without the addition of starch at least a few times.  It’s a valuable exercise in recognizing nappé consistency.  Napper is a French word meaning “to coat, or cover”.  It is used to describe the correct viscosity of sauces, whether those sauces are thickened with eggs, or roux, or a stock reduction.  They should coat the back of a spoon, and you can draw a line in the sauce with your finger that stays well after your swipe.  Like so:

Testing the viscosity of a custard sauce

Custard sauce will thicken further as it cools.  As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, the sauce should stand up when drizzled onto a plate.

 

Custard Sauce

Ingredients

  • 4 oz whole milk
  • 4 oz cream
  • 2 oz egg yolk (the yolks from 4 eggs)
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • pinch of salt

Procedure

  1. Set up a double boiler on the stove.
  2. Combine milk, cream, and vanilla in a heavy stainless steel pot.  Bring to a simmer.
  3. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt in a bowl until the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Once the milk and cream have come to a boil, slowly pour into the yolk mixture while stirring rapidly with a rubber spatula.
  5. Transfer the entire mixture to the double boiler.  Cook while constantly stirring with a rubber spatula until nappé consistency is reached.
  6. Immediately transfer the sauce to another container to slow the cooking process.

Yields just over 1 cup of custard sauce

Slaw

Coleslaw with honey mustard dressing and caraway.Recently I was shocked to discover that many people have bad childhood memories of “creamy” coleslaw.  I was raised on chopped cabbage in mayonnaise, a creamy slaw that we called cabbage salad.  Many detest this side dish so much that they have given up slaw all together.

I’d like to vouch for a different style of coleslaw, one that has more in common with the German Krautsalat than the classic mayo-bound North American slaw.

The main difference is that it’s dressed in a vinaigrette, instead of mayonnaise or buttermilk.  But before we discuss dressing, there’s a very important technique to consider.

Lightly Curing Cabbage for Slaw

There are very few vegetables that I truly enjoy raw.  Good carrots, radishes, and snap peas are the only ones that come to mind right now.  I think every other vegetable is better once it has been roasted or blanched or pickled or at the very least lightly cured, as described here.

Once I have sliced my cabbage into thin strips 2 to 3″ long, I toss those strips with 1% of their weight in salt, and 1% of their weight in sugar.  In other words, for each kilo of sliced cabbage, add 10 g each of salt and sugar.  Mix thoroughly and let the cabbage stand at room temperature for about an hour.  The transformation that takes place is subtle, but important.

Raw sliced cabbage is a bit stiff: it tends to stand up, and sometimes it reminds me of straw in my mouth.

During this light curing process, the cabbage starts to leach a bit of liquid.  Not so much that it becomes desiccated; just enough to get the juices flowing.  It takes on a faint luster, a brighter green hue, and the ribbons of cabbage become ever-so-slightly limp.  And of course the cabbage takes on salt and sugar, enhancing the natural flavour of the vegetable.  The strips still have the crunch and mustardy bite of raw cabbage, but they are far more appetizing.

For Krautsalat the Germans and Austrians take this process a bit further, letting the cabbage sit for several hours, then aggressively pressing it to remove excess moisture.

The Dressing

Mustard and cabbage are friends.  They’re both brassicas, and they share a lot of the same flavour characteristics.  Apples and cabbage are also friends, though the reasons for this are much more mysterious to me.  The two main flavours of my slaw dressing are therefore mustard and apple cider vinegar.  I sweeten it with honey, and whisk it with canola oil.  If you want to add another level of flavour, try adding caraway, celery seed, and mustard seed.  My preferred slaw dressing is detailed in this post on vinaigrettes.

Uses

Slaw is an essential component of any barbecue, especially true barbecue like pulled pork.  It’s also a good accompaniment to ham, or fried meat, like schnitzel.  And it’s useful as a dish for picnics.

Allan’s Default Slaw

Ingredients

  • 1 kg raw cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strips about 2″ long
  • 10 g kosher salt
  • 10 g granulated sugar
  • 1 cup of the honey mustard dressing described in this post

Procedure

  1. Toss the cabbage, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and let stand until the cabbage has released some moisture and become slightly limp, 1 to 2 hours.
  2. Lightly press the cabbage and strain out the liquid that has settled at the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Toss the lightly cured cabbage with the dressing.

 

General Slaw Method

The procedure above can be used to make a number of different slaws and salads.  Carrot, for instance, or cucumber.  Lightly cure carrots in the manner described above, then dress them in tangy yogurt and mint leaves.

 

Vinaigrettes

There are many compelling reasons to never buy salad dressings from the grocery store:

  • You almost certainly already have the ingredients in your pantry to make a good dressing.
  • A good dressing can be made in less than 90 seconds.  Actually you can make enough dressing for a few weeks in 90 seconds.
  • There are weird things in store-bought dressings, like calcium disodium EDTA and acetylated monoglycerides.  They also usually contain a good deal of sugar or glucose-fructose; not necessarily a bad thing, but a fact of which many people are unaware.

Invest is some quality oil and vinegar, then never buy a Kraft dressing again.

Whisking together a vinaigrette for slaw.

The simplest dressing to make at home is vinaigrette, which is a French diminutive meaning “little vinegar.”  There are two common ratios used by chefs for composing a vinaigrette: 3:1 oil to vinegar, and 2:1 oil to vinegar.  The exact proportions can be tailored to the particular application.  For my money, 3:1 is best for greens, 2:1 for slaw, potato salad, and other preparations using robust ingredients.  Any tart liquid can stand in for vinegar.  Sour fruit juices like raspberry or rhubarb, for instance.

Oil gives the impression of moisture on the tongue.  It is also a conveyance for the vinegar and other flavours you add.  If you plan on using a strongly-flavoured oil, like cold-pressed canola oil, or olive oil, it should probably be cut with a more neutral oil.

If the oil is slowly added to the vinegar while whisking, a temporary emulsion will form.  Some ingredients will stabilize and prolong the emulsion.  Mustard, for instance.

Vinaigrettes are emphatically not just for green salads: they are extremely versatile and go well with steak, fish, sautéed veggies, slaw, and starchy side dishes like macaroni salad.

Below are some simple vinaigrettes that I use at home.

 

Honey Mustard Dressing
my default slaw dressing

This is a punchy, acidic dressing that I use on coleslaw and potato salad.  It’s a bit thick and tart to be used on delicate greens, though it could certainly be thinned out for that purpose.

Master Ratio – 1:1:4:8, honey, mustard, cider vinegar, canola oil

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • optional but recommended: 1 tsp caraway seeds, 1 tsp mustard seeds, and 1/2 tsp celery seed

Procedure

  1. If using the spices, toast the seeds in a very hot, dry, heavy pan until they are aromatic and starting to crackle, then immediately stir them into the oil.  They should sizzle on contact with the oil.
  2. Whisk the honey, mustard, vinegar, and salt together in a bowl.
  3. Slowly add the oil while whisking.
  4. This dressing can be used immediately, or stored in a jar in the fridge for several weeks.

 

Pumpkinseed Oil Dressing

This is an extremely refined dressing for showcasing the flavour of very fine oil.  I learned it in Austria, where they have superlative pumpkinseed oil.  Water is flavoured with cider vinegar and a bit of salt.  The greens are dressed with the water, then shaken to remove most of the liquid.  The salad is plated, then the oil is drizzled over top.  Instead of an oil-vinegar emulsion coating the leaves of the salad you get the refreshing sensation of the water beading on the leaves.

Put differently, a classic French vinaigrette gives you the texture of the oil and the flavour of the vinegar, while this Austrian variation lets you have the flavour of a fine oil with the refreshing mouthfeel of the water and vinegar.

Master Ratio – 3:1:1, water, vinegar, oil

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tbsp Styrian pumpkinseed oil

Procedure

  1. Combine the water, vinegar, and salt in a bowl and stir until the salt has dissolved.  Toss the greens in the dressing, gently shaking them as you remove them from the bowl.
  2. Plate the salad, then drizzle the oil over top so that each mouthful will have some of the oil.

I serve this dressing on whatever greens are available, usually with a pinch of minced raw onion and other pungent veggies like radish or kohlrabi.