By gathering together around a delicious crema catalana on Saint Joseph’s Day, each 19th of March Catalan families welcomed the long-awaited spring and the end of the Lent fasting weeks.
The main ingredient of crema catalana is milk. At this time of the year, cows and ewes had already given birth to their calves and lambs. So, when food production followed strictly natural cycles, in March there was already plenty of milk for mouthwatering desserts like crema catalana.
Main Differences between Crema Catalana and Creme Brulee
- Crema catalana is made with milk while creme brulee uses cream. Hence it is safe to assume that it has fewer calories.
- Crema catalana is made on a saucepan over the cooktop while creme brulee is cooked in the oven or in a bain-marie. We use this culinary technique for the flan recipe, but not for crema.
- Vanille is one of the creme brulee ingredients while in crema catalana it is optional.
Ingredients for Crema Catalana
- 3/4 l or 1.5 pt or 3 1/5 cups milk
- 100 g sugar or 3.5 ounces or 3/4 cups
- 6 egg yolks
- 1 cinnamon stick
- The peel of a lemon
- 20 g starch or 2 tablespoons. Alternatively, you can use cornstarch or rice flour.
- Some more sugar for caramelizing
- Creme brulee ramekins or an oval serving dish or a creme brulee set.
- A creme brulee torch or a branding iron or the broiler of your oven
How to Make Creme Brulee in Catalan Style
- Strain the milk. Add 1/2 l or about 2 cups of the milk into a heavy-bottomed or another saucepan. Pour the remaining milk into a cup and keep aside. Add the cinnamon stick and the lemon peel to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 5 minutes over low heat to aromatize the milk. Remove from heat. Strain the milk, discarding the cinnamon and lemon peel.
- In the meantime, stir the starch or cornstarch into the cup of cool milk you kept aside. Stir until it is very well dissolved.
- In a bowl, mix the sugar and the egg yolks. Beat the mixture until it is very smooth and spongy. Slowly add the milk while stirring. Strain the cornstarch mixture into it and stir until it is a smooth mixture.
- Now pour the mixture into a saucepan. Cook over low heat, usually about 10 minutes, stirring all the time with a hand whisk or wooden spoon. Just when it is about to boil turn off heat or remove it from the heat with one hand while you continue stirring with the other hand for about two minutes. See note below
- Pour the crema catalana into custard cups, single-serving ramekins or a larger serving dish. Allow it to cool at room temperature or refrigerate until set.
- Just before serving, but in any case not before the Crema Catalana is set and cool, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar and burn it with a special branding iron or a creme brulee torch. If you don’t have any of these, burn the sugar under a very hot broiler, but make sure you use ovenproof bowls.
Notes and Considerations on the Crema Catalana Recipe
- Step 4 above is essential, perhaps the most important operation of the whole crema catalana recipe. First, the milk mixture should never come to a boil. Second, if you stop stirring the milk mixture suddenly and before removing the saucepan from the heat, the milk is likely to break, and your creme brulee recipe will be ruined. If you do it as I advise you, your Crema Catalana will be a gorgeous success.
- The traditional serving dish for this Catalan creme brulee recipe was a large oval serving dish, but nowadays —at least in restaurants— it is usually served in a 4-5 inch earthen cassoleta like in the picture above. In non-Mediterranean countries you can find them in Hispanic markets and they are very inexpensive, but failing this any creme brulee ramekin or large serving dish will do.
- Some people prefer the crema catalana dessert without the burnt sugar top. Still in many restaurants in Catalonia and Barcelona, they ask you how you want it before serving you the crema de Sant Josep. it’s just as good and traditional and a matter or personal preferences
- You can decorate the crema catalana with a cookie or two. The typical are cookies in longish, flute forms and in fan shapes also. They can be chocolate coated if you like.
- Some home cooks use the double amount of egg yolks for 1 liter or 1-quart milk —so you would use 12 for this recipe instead of 6. This is how a distant aunt of ours made it in her farm. I still remember exactly how amazingly mouthwatering it was, truly delicious! When my mother fell very ill, she used to bring her those huge dishes full of a very yellow Crema Catalana. Most of the times, instead of my mother, we the kids ate it. Maybe you’ll want to experiment with so many eggs.
- Some people prefer to use low-fat milk instead of whole milk. I always use whole milk, organic if I can, because when I eat “crema catalana”, I eat and enjoy it without remorse and don’t worry about counting calories 🙂 or it’s not worth the trouble. Whenever he dined at a restaurant, a friend of my father used to order two cremes catalanes right away as dessert, not one, but two! And he wasn’t fat at all!
A dessert recipe by many names
Crema Catalana is known by at least three names:
- Crema catalana —pronounced CREH-mah cah-tuh-LAH-nuh— that can be translated as Catalan custard;
- Crema de Sant Josep, which means Saint Joseph’s custard, in honor of this patron saint;
- The third name is crema cremada (pronounced CREH-mah creh-MAH-duh), literally burnt custard, or creme brulee in French, which refers to the delicious sheet of burnt or caramelized sugar that tops crema catalana
When to Eat Crema Catalana
In earlier times, Saint Joseph’s day was the only day of the year when you could enjoy this delicious dessert. As you may have guessed, nowadays you find Crema Catalana in the dessert lists of virtually all restaurants across Catalonia and Barcelona.
It is a very popular dessert that famous chefs like Ferran Adrià or Jordi Roca from the Celler Can Roca, Girona, twice declared the World’s Best Restaurant, have transformed into foams, modified and refined.
You can eat the Catalan creme brulee recipe by itself, but you can also add it to other delicious dessert recipes like apples stuffed with crema catalana and sweet coques or pastries.