Laura: "Hi Mom."
Mom: "Hi Laura."
Laura: "Quick question. I'm making dinner and the recipe says to simmer. What's simmer?"
Laura: "What does simmer mean?"
Mom: "You're telling me you don't know what simmer means?!?!"
Laura: "If I knew what it meant, I wouldn't be calling you!"
....an actual conversation with my mother sometime in 1986 and I'm sorry to say things on the culinary front didn't improve much until I started taking cooking classes in 1997. Also if a recipe had more than 5 ingredients and 6 steps I started hyperventilating and quickly made reservations.
Fast forward 6 years to cooking school. One of the most important things I was taught in cooking school was "techniques" as opposed to recipes and in the first 6 weeks we learned 200 and something techniques that form the foundation of French cuisine or really modern cooking. Braising, roasting, searing, emulsions, sauces, stock, soups, etc... Once you know a "technique" you can really make anything.
For example, my "Fast Coq au Vin, My Way" was basically a recipe for a stew that requires a protein (chicken), vegetable (peppers), and a liquid (red wine) and the technique is braising which is cooking something in a covered pot with some liquid at a low temperature for a long time. Simply replace chicken with beef, lamb, rabbit, etc..., substitute peppers with mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, etc...and swap red wine with white wine, chicken broth, beef broth, orange juice, any flavored liquid really, cook slowly over/in low heat and voila, stew!
So in future 'technique' posts, I will try to demystify and simplify some of these techniques and give you a basis from which to cook so that when you are at the market and see a beautiful crate of bespeckled cranberry beans or free range Bresse chickens (with heads & feet intact), you will instantly have a knowledge base from which to draw and many options or techniques to choose from. I bought a darling potimarron the other day and am still trying to decide what to do with it. Do I make soup? Roast it, puree it, or what I really want to do is make ice cream with it!
Which segues nicely to today's "technique" which is a stirred custard called Crème Anglaise. Crème Anglaise is a light (in viscosity, not caloric content!) dessert sauce that is also the base for ice cream. Make a batch, throw it in an ice cream machine, and in 30 minutes you have vanilla ice cream! Crème Anglaise is also a lovely sauce for spooning over or around various cakes, pastries, tarts, etc. Even if you bought a tart at Safeway and spooned a bit of crème anglaise infused with some aromatic, you'd have an elegant, delicious dessert. In France, it is traditionally served with a Genoise cake.
The base can be flavored with any number of ingredients, let your imagination run wild here. I've used ginger, lavender, chocolate-chili, fig, basil, earl gray tea, cardamom....you get the idea. Some other ideas include: lemon or orange zest, cinnamon, coffee, toasted nuts, liqueurs, coconut, dried fruits, flavorful fruits such as raspberries or peaches, the ideas are limitless! One of the techniques within this technique is "tempering" which means combining a hot and cold item without them separating or "curdling", in this case the egg yolks turning into scrambled eggs! I hope this helps!
If you are making ice cream, let the mixture cool to room temperature (ideally chill it), add it to the ice cream machine and let'er rip. Or you can serve it warm on top of a souffle! That, my friends, is downright decadent!
500 ml (approx 18 oz) milk (regular milk please, not non- or low- or 2% milk! if you are worried about calories, just have one spoonful, no need to drink it though you will want to!)
4-5 egg yolks (depending on size)
100 g (approx 3.5 oz) sugar
½ vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, insides scraped out and all put into pot
1. Put milk and vanilla bean into a cold pot and place it on the stove.
NOTE: This is where you would add what ever flavoring element you choose such as lavender or chocolate, etc...
2. Slowly bring this mixture to a boil and remove from heat. (You don't want to scald the milk or it will have a burnt taste. Set aside and let cool.
3. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a non-reactive (glass or stainless steel) bowl until it is pale yellow. This is called "blanchir" or to whiten as the eggs will lighten in color.
4. Very slowly "temper" or pour the hot milk into the yolks/sugar mixture, whisking vigorously constantly. Remember, you want to 'cook' the eggs in the hot liquid without turning them into scrambled eggs! If your bowl is sliding all over the counter, put a damp towel on the counter and set the bowl on that.
5. Pour this mixture back into the pot and return to the stove top. Cook over medium heat while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, making sure you scrape the inside corners of the pot as that is where the cream thickens and clumps.
6. The cream is ready when it is "nappant" or coats the back of the spoon. Run your finger down the back of a spoon and if the mixture doesn't fill in and leaves a line, it is ready. The picture above is an example of "nappant".
7. Strain the mixture through a chinois (fine strainer) into an ice bath or a bowl set on top of another bowl of ice. Stir the mixture -- this will cool it down quickly.
*NOTE: This is the same technique for (Crème Patisserie) Pastry Cream (a starch-bound custard) which is a much thicker version of Crème Anglaise and is used in Napoleans, filling for éclairs and profiteroles, and the base for fruit tarts, to name a few...