When several packages of viscous fluid showed up on the luggage scanner, security agents at Charles de Gaulle Airport asked me to explain some items in my checked bags.
"Crème anglaise," I said, reciting one of the few French phrases I had bothered to learn. It translates literally as "English cream." The English call it custard, or pouring custard. On that side of the pond, it's used most often as a sauce; but if you put some nutmeg and bourbon in crème anglaise, 99 out of 100 Americans would think they were drinking fine eggnog.
Upon hearing that my bags contained crème anglaise, the security agents broke into excited chatter.
"Blah blah le crème anglaise blah blah le américain blah blah oui oui le crème anglaise."
Their tone reminded me of Japanese tourists saying, "Ah so," but I wondered if they were debating whether I should be detained—or worse, if my crème anglaise should be confiscated. Perhaps, I feared, they were discussing whether there was anything in the break room on which to pour my confiscated treasure.
Apparently not, because they sent me on my way with pats on my back and words of encouragement, my bags checked through, crème anglaise and all.
Getting the stuff past American customs was a breeze. But I have no illusions about how close I came to losing my crème in Paris. Had there been a hot moelleux au chocolat in the vicinity—that's a French-style chocolate muffin with molten chocolate inside—those boxes of liquid would surely have been deemed a security risk.
As sauces go, crème anglaise isn't particularly impressive. It's not thick like frosting or mayo, and when poured over cake it looks like spilled paint. Thus, for a more neat presentation, it is often served as a puddle on a plate, in which the likes of pie, or moelleux au chocolat, is placed. The French call this presentation île flottante, which means "floating island."
Of course, some crème anglaise in a glass with a shot of whiskey would be a tidy presentation as well. Or if neatness isn't your top priority, why not do as the Menopausal Stoners blog recommends: "After you make the crème anglaise, mix in the Five Dirty Browns: rum, bourbon, cognac, brandy and some other whiskey. We're going to mix up a batch and invite that tasty boiler repairman over for cocktails."
Crème anglaise tastes so much like eggnog that most people wouldn't notice the difference. In fact, traditional eggnog recipes actually employ crème anglaise as an ingredient. But with so many shortcuts now available, few people bother to make eggnog the old fashioned way anymore.
Crème anglaise, sans the nutmeg and booze of eggnog, is less committed, and thus has more ways it can be used. Whether it's poured on fruit, puddled around a piece of chocolate cake or spiked with the Five Dirty Browns, any amount will disappear very quickly, especially this time of year.
The many recipes for crème anglaise differ in their use of milk versus cream and in the proportion of dairy to egg yolk, as well as the amount of sugar, so there's leeway in your proportions. Adding more yolks, more cream or less milk will thicken the crème anglaise. I usually add less sugar than most recipes call for—you can always sweeten it later.
In a thick-bottomed saucepan, heat two cups of milk and/or cream on low, along with one vanilla pod, split down the middle, seeds removed. Alternatively, use two teaspoons of vanilla extract. Stir often to make sure it doesn't scald.
Meanwhile, separate the yolks from the whites of six eggs, and combine the yolks with four tablespoons of sugar and two pinches of salt. Stir for about five minutes with a wooden spoon or spatula.
When the cream mixture is almost at a simmer, pour a quarter cup of it, in a thin stream, into the yolk and sugar mixture. Stir vigorously while pouring to temper the yolks, which makes them less likely to curdle when heated.
Once all the hot cream has been incorporated into the egg yolks, discard the vanilla pod and return the mixture to the saucepan on low heat, stirring often. Do not let it boil, or even come close to simmering. It will quickly start to thicken, and when it coats a spoon thickly, turn off the heat. As it cools, it will thicken some more. Voilà.
At this point you have crème anglaise, as well as the leftover whites of six eggs. These items present a number of interesting options.
To make traditional-style eggnog, add some nutmeg to the crème anglaise. Then, beat those leftover egg whites until they're stiff, and fold them into the crème anglaise. Then whip some cream, and fold that in, too. Spike as you see fit.
This eggnog will likely be superior to the stuff that goes down at your office party, which might not even have real eggs in it (legally, it needn't). Even most scratch recipes for eggnog are just whole eggs beat together with milk, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and booze. If you're worried about microbes in the raw eggs, I guess you're just supposed to add enough alcohol to kill them.
If eggnog isn't the goal and you just want to make a little Crème Anglaise to play around with, here's an easy, fun thing to do with those leftover egg whites. Beat them stiff, and then beat in two tablespoons of cocoa powder. Serve dollops of the resulting brown foam, île flottante-style, on a puddle of crème anglaise.
I call it "Chocolate Icebergs in a Sea of Crème Anglaise," but I'm open to suggestions for something shorter.
Those chocolate egg whites can be sweetened but I prefer not to, for a more dramatic contrast between the stiff, spartan, bitter whites and the sweet and creamy crème anglaise.
And once the icebergs dissolve into the sea, pour the remains into your coffee, for a well-deserved café anglaise.