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Cooking for One: Creme anglaise makes holidays even sweeter

Thursday, December 19, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

The holiday scene: You're out shopping, you meet a friend and next thing you know, you say something like, "It's been so long. I'd love for us to sit down and talk. Come on over for brunch on Sunday. Just bring yourself."

In the water now, you solo cooks need to put your menu where your mouth is. How about this festive but quick menu for two? Frazzled slices of Canadian bacon, cream biscuits, sauteed fresh pineapple chunks and eggnog?

Here's the hitch: I want you to make homemade eggnog.

The recipe is my holiday gift to you. No box or ribbon required. It is a foolproof technique for your bag of cookery tricks.

As you know, many desserts call for French creme anglaise, which is, in plain English, a cooked vanilla custard sauce.

For many home cooks, however, making it is fraught with risk. The usual method of cooking a custard sauce involves heating milk, whisking a bit into a bowl of egg yolks, then pouring the heated egg mixture back into hot milk and cooking until the custard coats a spoon but -- and here's where the alarm bell rings -- you have to stop just short of overcooking the egg yolks, which would produce lumps and curds. A ruined sauce.

Here's the trick. I learned it during a cooking demonstration given by Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld of the Herbfarm.

Early in his career, when he was a pastry chef at Stars, Jeremiah Towers' restaurant in San Francisco, Traunfeld had to make gallons of creme anglaise every day. It took way too much time, he said, when he'd rather be creating pastries. So he developed a reverse-cooking method for the sauce that is risk-free and speedy. Instead of adding egg yolks to boiling milk, he adds the boiling hot milk directly into slightly pre-warmed egg yolks, which cooks them instantly with no risk and no timing involved.

And the custard immediately coats a spoon, the standard test for the finished product. The sauce thickens as it cools in the fridge. Hard to believe until you try it.

Called by either its French or English name, the sauce is wonderful served over apple dumplings or pie, strudel, bread pudding or desserts, such as baked pears. To kick it up a notch for company, substitute 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or Cointreau for the vanilla.

Now back to the brunch-lette, where we began.

With a little pinch of nutmeg and a glug or two of rum added to the custard sauce, you create a simple, homemade eggnog without the additives.

Buy really good sliced Canadian bacon. Saute in a bit of butter at the last minute until the edges are frazzled and brown.

Look for pre-cut Hawaiian pineapple -- top off, eyes removed -- in the produce department. Slice it down into rings or wedges, sprinkle with a little sugar and saute in butter until it browns.

Make cream biscuits from any recipe or use Bisquick with chopped herbs added for color and flavor.

And if I miss seeing you this season, happy holidays.

Vanilla Custard Sauce (Creme Anglaise)

  • 6 egg yolks, at room temperature

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups whole milk (we use whole milk Lactaid )
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • For eggnog, add
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon rum or more to taste

Place the egg yolks in a warmed bowl and place over barely warm water in a larger bowl. You just want to take the chill off them. (Before proceeding to the next step, remove the yolk bowl from the water bath and dry the outside. This will prevent it from skidding on the counter.)

Add the sugar and salt to the milk in a medium saucepan. Stir constantly over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and the milk is coming to the boil.

As the boiling milk rises in the pan, immediately remove from heat and immediately pour the milk into the egg yolks, whisking briskly for the first few seconds. Once all the milk is in (about 20 seconds), do not whisk vigorously. Continue to stir to blend, not aerate. The yolks will be cooked without further heating. Add vanilla.

Strain into a container to remove those thick, cord-like strands of egg white that anchor the yolk in the center of the egg. They are called chalazae.

Refrigerate until ready to serve. The sauce will thicken as it cools.

For eggnog: Add nutmeg and rum. Makes 3 cups of sauce, or 4 servings of eggnog.

Marlene Parrish is a Mount Washingtion-based freelance food writer.

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