One of the most famous of all Spanish Catalan desserts, créma catalana is a simple stovetop cooked custard served in shallow terra-cotta cazuelitas. A very hot salamander (a small kitchen iron with a long handle) is used to sear the top, forming a glassy, paper-thin crust that imparts a delicious burnt sugar taste and a wonderful smoky aroma.
In this version, which dates back more than a hundred years, a luxurious creaminess and depth of flavor are created through the extra step of baking the custards in a slow oven after the stovetop cooking. (David Kinch, chef-owner of the celebrated Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, California, who worked previously at the Catalan restaurant Sent Sovi, confirmed to me that, in fact, some old Catalan culinary texts suggest this type of dual cooking.)
Interestingly, this second step brings the recipe close to the famous créme brulee, but there are two main differences: Créma catalana is not baked in a bain-marie or water bath; it’s made with a mixture of milk and cream, which makes it lighter than the French version, which is usually made entirely of heavy cream.
You can purchase cazuelitas along with a salamander or branding iron from www.tienda.com or www.spanishtable.com. See the Notes for tips on how to use the salamander and also how to finish the dish with a kitchen blowtorch or a gas broiler.
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1 piece (2 inches) vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 1 long strip lemon zest
- ½ cup egg yolks (7 or 8 yolks)
- ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 6 tablespoons turbinado sugar
- A 3-quart glazed or unglazed earthenware or ceramic flameware saucepan or casserole
- 6 earthenware cazuelitas of very shallow porcelain or stoneware baking dishes, 6 ounces each, and about 5 inches in diameter
1. Pour the milk into the earthenware saucepan and set over low heat. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and throw in the pod as well. Add the lemon zest, raise the heat to medium-low, and cook until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan. Transfer the hot saucepan to a wooden surface or folded kitchen towel to prevent cracking and let the flavorings steep in the milk for about 20 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 210°F. Reheat the milk over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Scoop out and discard the flavorings.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and cornstarch. Beat until smooth, creamy, and pale in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in about 1 cup of the hot milk. Scrape the egg yolk mixture into the remaining milk in the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, until the custard is creamy and thick enough to coat a wooden spoon thickly. Do not allow to boil.
4. Arrange the cazuelitas on a jelly pan. Ladle the custard into them, dividing it evenly. Bake for 1 to 1¼ hours, or until the custad is set around the edges but still slightly jiggly in the center. Let cool, then cover each little dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
5. About 20 minutes before serving, remove the cazuelitas from the refrigerator and discard their plastic covers. Use a paper towel to gently blot away any surrace moisture on top of each. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the turbinado sugar evenly over each custard. Caramelize in any of the three ways described in the Notes, and serve at once.