This lemon and cinnamon-infused custard is a popular dessert in Spain. It has a characteristic caramelized or burnt sugar top and is known by several names: crema catalana, crema cremada, and crema de Sant Josep. Although now eaten year-round, it used to be only served on Saint Joseph's Day, 19 March, which is considered Father’s Day in Spain. The custard is traditionally served in terra cotta cazuela dishes.
Crema catalana often is considered the precursor to crème brûlée. However, the desserts are very different in terms of ingredients, cooking method, consistency and taste. Crema catalana has quite a distinctive flavor and a thicker, creamier consistency – I must admit that that I prefer the delicate, vanilla-infused crème brûlée.
Finding the right combination of ingredients and cooking methods took some time. Many of the recipes that I tried resulted in curdled eggs or a much-too-sweet dessert. The recipe below is perfect.
Preparation time 20 minutes (plus cooling and refrigeration) Cook time 15 minutes Makes 3-4 servings
500 milliliters (2 cups and 1⅓ tablespoons) whole milk
30 grams (2 tablespoon) sugar
24 grams (3 tablespoons) cornstarch
½ cinnamon stick
1 long, thick strip of lemon peel
Sugar for caramelizing
Measure the ingredients.
Put the milk, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Remove from heat and allow to infuse for at least 15 minutes. Once cool and infused, strain through a sieve and discard the lemon and cinnamon.
Whisk together the eggs and sugar until pale and thick.
Mix a little of the infused milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a thin paste (the cornstarch will prevent the egg yolks from curdling). Add the paste to the eggs and whisk well. Then add the rest of the cooled, infused milk to the eggs and whisk gently.
Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until the custard has thickened – your spoon or whisk will leave faint marks in the custard indicating it has thickened.
Remove from the heat and pour into 3 or 4 ramekins or cazuela dishes, depending on how large of a portion size you would like to serve. (I used 4 ramekins sized 140 grams/5 ounces which were not filled all the way). Make sure the tops are even as this will affect the caramelization of the sugar in step 8.
Immediately cover the tops with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Once cool, place in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight, until completely chilled – it will be thick and creamy and will not set like crème brûlée.
When read to serve, take the custards out of the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Top each custard with a spoonful of sugar. Spread the sugar in a thin layer by tilting the ramekins in all directions. Caramelize the sugar with a small propane kitchen torch until it turns light golden brown (using a hot iron or hot salamander is traditional).
Serve immediately as the caramelized sugar with get soggy.