At least half of my mother’s inspiration comes from the intense joy her dishes give my father. And boy, does he know how to enjoy! He must be the original gourmand. One of his favourites – and for that reason one of my mother’s specialities – is the French version of baked custard, crème caramel. It’s one of those dishes that tastes six times better when it’s made with yard eggs, but even with store-bought eggs it’s wonderful. And it isn’t only Pa and I who wax rhapsodic about it – this is what Julia Child has to say about crème caramel: “How lovely is the smooth and tender beauty of a caramel custard, carefully baked, unmolded, and standing high.” The Beloved says it sounds as if she’s describing part of a young girl’s anatomy, but he’s always saying things like that. It’s best to take him with a pinch of salt. This recipe is enough for a 2-litre baking tin and will therefore serve at least eight, but trust me, three or four people can polish it off in a trice. Have the baking tin ready. A cake tin that’s about 10 cm deep works well, as does a ring-shaped one. I’ve even made this recipe in a deep metal mixing bowl. Also have a deep dish ready that can serve as a bain-marie. Heat the oven to 180ºC. For the caramel you will need ¾ cup (180 ml) sugar and 3 tablespoons (45 ml) water. In a small saucepan gradually heat the sugar and water until the sugar has dissolved. Put the lid on the saucepan for 30 seconds to bring it to the boil. Allow to boil until the syrup is a lovely caramel colour. Plunge the bottom of the saucepan into cold water so the caramel doesn’t burn or go too brown, otherwise it will taste bitter. Using pot holders and working fast, pour the caramel sauce into the baking tin and swirl it around for a few minutes so the caramel covers the bottom and runs halfway up the sides. Heat gently if it sets too quickly. Set aside. Pour 1/3 cup (80 ml) water into the saucepan and heat to melt the remaining caramel so you can serve it as a caramel sauce. To make the custard, you’ll need 6 large eggs, 5 egg yolks, ¾ cup (180 ml) sugar, 4 cups (1 litre) milk, 2 teaspoons (10 ml) or more vanilla extract (try to get hold of the real thing), and a pinch of salt. Lightly combine the eggs, yolks and sugar using a wire whisk. Don’t beat too briskly or it will foam.
Bring the milk to the boil and gradually stir it into the egg mixture to dissolve the sugar, once again without making it foam. Add the vanilla and salt, and pour the mixture through a tea strainer into the caramelised pan. Skim off any foam that might form on the surface. Place the baking tin in the bain-marie and fill the latter with boiling water to halfway up the sides of the tin containing the crème caramel. Place the bainmarie on the bottom shelf of the oven and watch the heat carefully – the water mustn’t boil, only look as if it’s about to. The crème caramel is ready when a testing needle inserted 2–3 cm from the edge comes out clean. The centre must still be a little wobbly. Remove from the bain-marie and allow to rest for 30 minutes or until dinnertime. Serve at room temperature. Slide a sharp knife all around the edge, place the serving dish over the tin and deftly flip the whole thing over. The baked custard will slide out gently and, if you’ve done everything right, you will gasp with delight. Pour over the extra caramel sauce. You can make it way ahead of time – a day or two – and keep it in the tin in the fridge. Turn out just before dinner. I like it best at room temperature.