A little about Grown Ups:
They open their mail. They scribe ‘paid’ on the top of bills with a reference number, before storing them in reverse date order in concertina file. They do their tax (sometimes they even have parties for it). They won’t wrinkle their nose at the peat of whiskey. They eat sprouts and apple cores, enjoy the brine on olives and the furry salt of an anchovy. They buy proper art and go to the effort of having it framed, rather than just chocking them up a wall. They call to check on the health of their parents. They’re more interested in buying something classic than a shiny fad. And they eat a proper breakfast, often with a good dose of soluble fibre.
Somehow, in the last few months I think I finally graduated to the realm of a fully fledged grown up.
I’d tinkered with it for a while (some might even say in my youth I was more 14 going on 40). Signing the papers on the mortgage to a flat in Sydney a few years back with The Hungry One felt pretty adult (much more so than the wedding, which was really just a glorious game of dress ups).
But I don’t think I can deny it any more. I’m one of that club now.
These days I also like my desserts to be restrained- no layer on layer of butter cream and flowers, edible glitter and cookie crumbs. I’m more easily swayed by the little black dresses of my culinary cupboard.
Most specifically, I’m talking about Creme Caramel. It’s a petite exercise in balance; the bitterness of the caramel, pushed just an iota too far by heat, draping down over custard like a scarf on cold shoulders.
It doesn’t need any bells and whistles. In fact, anything else on the plate could detract from its charms – what was it that Coco Chanel said; before leaving the house, always take something off.
It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so- particularly if you use a milk based custard over cream. It’s elegant sufficiency- just a few bits of hands on work- making a sugar/water caramel (in a metal based saucepan, not a non stick pan to ensure it doesn’t seize), then pouring it into warmed ramekins so the caramel can easily spread across the base (that one there is a tip from Mary Berry- a real life grown up if ever there was one). The custards are baked in a water bath then let to sit in the fridge so the caramel can slowly seduce it, seeping in and softening.
The only thing that could make these any brighter in my book, is a touch of salt. Some flakes of Maldon in the first layer of caramel twist its bitter notes, making its dark sweetness even more compelling. A few more flakes on serving add a little texture, a brittle crunch. They also wake up what can be quite a downy, heavy lidded dessert.
This is the kind of pudding you want to serve after a slow cooked lamb navarin, or bavette steaks with frites, pliant onions and a tartly dressed salad. It quietly says ‘I thought enough of you to get something started ahead of time’. But it also proudly proclaims that you’re not a slave to the kitchen- you’ll happily let a water bath and some time in the fridge do all of the transformative work for you.
It’s about as adult as you can get for sweets, particularly if you serve a nip of whiskey or cognac on the side and admire how that smokiness takes it to a whole other level.
That said, it also makes a giddily childish breakfast. Soft and soothing it’s something that’s easily scoffed in bed straight out of its ramekin with a teaspoon while you make plans to go and see an animated film.
I may be an adult, but surely some occasional regressions are allowed…
Salted Creme Caramels
Inspired and adapted from Mary Berry’s Classic Creme Caramels.
Serves three (or serves two, with one spare as a sneaky snack or breakfast, Easily doubles to serve six)
1 baking tray to fashion a water bath. 3 ramekins. 1 saucepan with a metal bottom- non stick may cause problems.
80 g/ caster sugar, plus 1 tbsp of caster sugar
unsalted butter (for greasing the ramekins)
1 tsp vanilla extract/ vanilla bean paste
300 ml full fat milk
3 tsp sea salt flakes (Maldon are good), plus extra to serve
Here’s how we roll
1) Preheat the oven to 150C/300 F and place the ramekins in the oven while preheating. This will make the caramel ooze into them when it’s poured.
2) To make the caramel place the sugar and three tablespoons of water into a stainless steel pan (it will be difficult to do in a non stick pan. Best not to try) and place on a medium heat.
3) Dissolve the sugar by swirling the pan over the heat. .
4) Boil the sugar until it turns into a mahogany. The colour of Eva Mendes’ hair is about right.
5) Remove the pan immediately from the heat. You don’t want the caramel burning. Pour it into the warm ramekins, dust with salt then set them aside to cool (best not to put in the fridge- they can become sticky).
6) Make the custard by whisking the eggs, vanilla and tablespoon of caster sugar together into a bowl. Then pour back into the same saucepan you made the caramel in. Gently heat, stirring until it’s got a few bubbles on the outside, but not boiling.
7) Grease the inside of the ramekins below the caramel. Pour the custard over the top and transfer the ramekins into the baking tray.
8 ) Place the baking tray in the oven and pour just boiled water from a kettle into the pan so it reaches half way up the sides. Cook for 25 – 30 minutes until the custard has set.
9) Place the custards on a cooling rack until they come to room temperature. Then transfer to the fridge for at least six hours (overnight is best) so the caramel can steep into the custard.
10) To remove the custards from their ramekins trace around the perimeter of the custard with a butter knife. Place the plate over he top and flip.
11) Sprinkle with a little additional salt. Lovely with a sly snifter of whiskey on the side.