I’m not going to wade into the debate over whether the French invented crème brûlée first or the Catalonians invented crema Catalana first. Some subjects are simply too hot to touch. Suffice to say that the techniques for preparing them are identical, though the flavors and textures are not. Crema Catalana, in addition to vanilla, has citrus peel and cinnamon in it, which give it a nice liveliness. It’s not the showpiece for cream that crème brûlée is, but then it’s made with milk anyway. The extra eggs yolks compensate for the lost fat, in addition to giving this custard a somewhat looser texture.
Stirred up — versus being allowed to set in ramekins — crema Catalana makes a phenomenal filling. If you’re planning on using it for that purpose, you can simply do the final heating of the custard mixture in a saucepan. It’s a rough-and-ready treatment for a delicate custard, but it works very well for the purpose. If you’re serving your crema as a dessert, you can heat the custards gently in a water bath in the oven, which will ensure the very silkiest result. You’ll need:
16 ounces (2 cups) whole milk
zest of half an orange
zest of half a lemon
1 cinnamon stick
seeds from half a vanilla bean
6 egg yolks
3.5 ounces (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
0.5 ounces (2 tablespoons) cornstarch (corn flour)
Put the egg yolks and sugar in medium bowl (at least two quarts in size, enough to hold the whole mixture). Have a hand mixer fitted with the beaters ready.
Combine the milk, citrus zest, cinnamon stick and vanilla seeds (plus the empty bean pod…why not?) in a small saucepan. Bring it to a simmer over medium heat.
While the milk mixture is heating, beat the sugar and yolks on high speed until the mixture is thick, pale and fluffy. At that point, beat in the cornstarch.
When the milk gets to the simmering point, strain it into the yolk and sugar mixture in order to remove the zest, vanilla husk, and cinnamon stick. Apply the hand mixer, beating on low so as not to splatter the stuff everywhere.
TO MAKE THE STANDARD “STILL” VERSION: When the mixture is uniform, strain it evenly into individual ramekins. Place the ramekins into a hot water bath (pour in boiling water until its about halfway up the sides, then (carefully) place the pan in the oven, and bake the custard for half an hour at 325 degrees Fahrenheit until they no longer “slosh” hen you jiggle them, indicating that the custard is set.
Remove the pan from the oven, take the custards out of the water bath, and let them cool for ten minutes. At that point, cover them with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Allow them to cool to room temperature, then place them in the refrigerator overnight so the flavors can mellow and blend.
When ready to serve, sprinkle the tops with turbinado sugar, then use a kitchen torch (or an iron “salamander” if you happen to have one of those) to brown the sugar. Serve hot.
TO MAKE THE STIRRED VERSION: When the mixture is uniform, pour it back into the saucepan and place the saucepan back over medium heat. Heat it gently, whisking more or less constantly, until steam rises and you can see the first bubble of a simmer on the surface, indicating that the custard is as thick as it’s going to get.
Pour (or strain) the cooked mixture out onto a large plate or sheet pan. Cover it immediately with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Allow it to cool to room temperature, then store it in the refrigerator several hours or overnight until you’re ready to use it as a filling.