Crème of the Crop
Executive pastry chef Daniel Skurnick of NYC's Le Coucou and Buddakan is the brain behind many fascinating desserts, like double dark fermented soy sauce ice cream served alongside a chocolate walnut tart. And pipe tobacco ice cream, which contributes an almost warm raisin flavor to a dish, with hints of bacon, chocolate and whiskey. From passion fruit to pandan leaves, Skurnick steeps flavor into his food through his Secret Weapon: crème anglaise.
At its simplest, crème anglaise is a rich, sweet sauce composed of cream, sugar and egg yolks. One of the sauces all professional cooks must master, it traditionally requires tempering and constant stirring as the dairy and eggs cook—details many avoid at home altogether. At the helm of two busy restaurants, Skurnick makes 20-quart batches in one go, or up to 40 gallons in a single weekend. "We don't have time to make sure milk on massive burners doesn't burn if we walk away," he says. And so he's made his crème anglaise recipe as easy to nail as possible.
He first combines both milk and cream in a large pot: too much cream and the high-fat ratio won't pour as a sauce, but too much milk and it tastes "watery and boring." In a bowl, he whisks egg yolks. He warms the dairy and to it adds 90 percent of the sugar, whisking the remaining 10 percent into the yolks. "Heat acts as sharp knives thrown at your protein, and sugar acts like bubble wrap against it," he explains. By adding this sugar-wrap to both proteins, he's solved the burn risk. Instead of slow cooking, he brings the dairy to a quick boil, removes the pot from the heat, whisks it into the eggs, pours the lot back into the pot and furiously stirs for five seconds. Then, he pours it all into a container set over ice and walks away.
"Once everything is weighed out, the process takes 15 seconds," he promises. "Boom, boom—go." When chilled, the crème anglaise works as a plate sauce that gets spun into pistachio, cardamom and Vietnamese coffee ice creams, and transforms into coconut bavarois or chocolate crémeux. "There's a blanket fear that pastry is scientific and exact," Skurnick says. "And that's true in many ways. But pastry has a fluidity to it, an art to it, where you're allowed to put your creative touch."
Crème Anglaise Flavoring Basics
At its core, crème anglaise has a recipe ratio of one cup of milk (liquid) to one cup of cream (fat) to four egg yolks and half a cup of sugar. "Once you learn that, you can start playing," Skurnick says. For the milk, try subbing in equal parts raspberry purée or dark soy sauce. For the cream, try cream cheese or coconut milk. For sugar, dry sugars like coconut, date or molasses shift the flavor profile while keeping the process steady.
Beyond substitutions, flavorful steeping options are endless, like vanilla, espresso beans or cinnamon sticks. "Not every flavor works," Skurnick warns. "There are certain things egginess just does not lend itself to." Through years of experimentation, he's learned grapefruit does not pair as well as lemon. Passion fruit, however, tastes heavenly—papaya does not. "But even when it's bad, you can turn it into ice cream or pour it over chocolate—it still works. Have fun with it. Steep something interesting: doughnuts, corn bread, oak chips, dried leaves."
Once you're done subbing and steeping, use Skurnick's Secret Weapon in these classic and festive ways throughout the holidays and well into the New Year.
① Simple Sauce for Cake
The texture of straight crème anglaise "makes a lovely sauce poured over chocolate cakes or sticky pudding." For festive winter flavors, think adding warm winter spices, like tobacco or applewood chips, to your base. Or sub out the cream for cream cheese, and you have the perfect sauce for carrot cake.
② The Very Best Eggnog
"For Christmas, an anglaise will give you the very best eggnog you've ever had," Skurnick promises. Toast whole nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and allspice until aromatic. Add your milk and cream. The next day, strain out the spices, add the alcohol, and you're good to go. It's like drinking straight crème anglaise with a boozy kick to it.
③ Make a Mousse
Use the aforementioned 'nog for the booziest mousse in town. Skurnick instructs to go heavy on the spices, "'cause we're gonna add another pint of plain unflavored whipped cream to it." To the warm eggnog anglaise, add four sheets of bloomed gelatin (or eight grams of powdered gelatin). Meanwhile, whip one pint of cream to soft peaks. Add a tablespoon or two of booze to the mix if desired, but not too much—it'll alter the consistency of the mousse. Once the gelatinous anglaise is cool to the touch but not set, fold in the whipped cream, then set in cups or mugs.
④ Frozen Custard Cream
Once the crème anglaise is set, toss it into any standard ice cream machine and spin until a decadent frozen custard forms.
⑤ Classic (or Candy Cane!) Crémeux
"I like to think of crémeux as ganache's more decadent cousin," Skurnick jokes. Stir the anglaise into a pot with equal parts melted chocolate until the two are fully emulsified. Once set, it's crémeux. Use it to fill cake layers or sandwich cookies, plate artfully alongside another dessert, "or just eat it straight from the container."
When considering steeping options, think darker flavors like burnt oranges or strong black tea. "Don't be a wimp," he advises, or they'll be lost among the chocolate. Or flip the profile and go white chocolate and candy cane: Pulse enough candy canes in a food processor until you have half a cup, then sub into your anglaise base recipe. Pour it over 325 grams of white chocolate (add more mint extract if you want it stronger), and you've got candy cane crémeux to wow those holiday cookie exchanges.
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