Crème anglaise (& Heart of Darkness)

Crème anglaise (& Heart of Darkness)

When Sébastien first came here, he used to go around woefully asking for English cream. He was very surprised to learn that in this English-speaking country, we called crème anglaise…crème anglaise.

He was absolutely bereft to learn that you couldn’t buy it in pints in the dairy section, the same way you buy half and half, as you can in France. It is a classic to serve rich, dense chocolate cakes or tortes–especially ones that tend to be a little dry or in other ways need a balance–in a shallow pool of crème anglaise. Say about a millimeter of depth in the plate, with the chocolate set down on top of it.

I, being in love with words, love the whole country-jumping game that seems to me implied in the French naming this light sauce crème anglaise (English cream) and Americans adapting it and continuing to call it crème anglaise.

The first time I tried to make crème anglaise, I became convinced that it involved far too much stirring. (After half an hour, the cream still had not thickened.) But the other day, as Sébastien was trying to sweet-talk a waitress into giving him a LOT of crème anglaise on his dessert instead of a drizzle, I decided to try again with another recipe, this one from Joy of Cooking.

And so here is another French classic that, it turns out, is very, very easy, and so Sébastien is now very, very happy.


[Sébastien represented by Kiki–furry animal to far left–in this photo. Note the utter impossibility in my house of finding a photo background that does not include French stuffed animals and one bunny who is questing for more pots de crème.]

Crème anglaise

2 cups light cream
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise or 2 tsp vanilla
5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar

Add the split vanilla bean to the cream and heat cream to just below boiling (don’t boil). While heating, whisk together egg yolks and sugar. Pour a bit of hot cream into the egg yolk/sugar mixture, whisking together, and continue gradually adding cream & whisking all the while until all cream and eggs are combined. Return mixture to pan and return to stove, heat again, stirring frequently until JUST BELOW boiling. This is important or the cream will curdle. Remove from heat. If you use vanilla extract, add it now; if not, scrape the seeds off the vanilla bean and stir them in. Leave the vanilla pod in until you serve the cream.

I strongly recommend the vanilla bean, even though when I pay 5 dollars for a vanilla bean and think of my time in Tahiti, I get vanilla-homesick and also grind my teeth against Whole Foods prices. But anyway…

Joy of Cooking recommends straining the cream after it comes off the stove. I did not, because it looked smooth, but tiny lumps showed up later, so I would strain it next time.

[Note that the only toy-free background was outside.]

Crème anglaise goes well with many chocolate things, even a cakey brownie, but I decided to try it with this:

Heart of Darkness Chocolate Torte

(adapted with ingredients to hand from On the Menu.)

I chose this recipe because it has a fantastic name, and it’s an even better name with a heart mold, which I didn’t have.

12 oz Ghirardelli Double Dark Chocolate Chips
1 & 1/3 c sugar
1/3 cup water
8 oz butter, cubed
5 extra large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease & line bottom of 9″ cake pan with parchment paper. Grease parchment paper also.

Combine sugar & water and bring to boil in a sauce pan, stirring occasionally. Combine chocolate & butter in big bowl. Microwave 40 seconds & stir, 40 seconds again & stir. Pour boiling sugar-water (syrup) over, let stand a minute, and mix together with a mixer (or food processor if you prefer). Add eggs one at a time until incorporated. Pour into prepared pan and bake about 40 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.

Let chill completely.

Pour crème anglaise onto cake plate, a little pool of it. Set slice of cake down in middle of it. Drizzle a bit more cream over if you like. I feel it needs some other decoration, but I will leave that inspiration up to you.

  • Ahhhhh flourless cake and crème anglaise, heaven !!!!! Clarice

    April 17, 2007 at 4:35 pm
  • Oh my
    How you spoil that Frenchman 🙂
    I would be thrilled just to find some French Tap water here-awfully nice to paint with.
    Perhaps I should delve into Joy of Cooking as well…

    April 17, 2007 at 4:58 pm
  • I am SO hungry. I also am envious of that outdoor shot because it appears you have sun and warmth. (yes, I can sense the warmth in the photograph.) And, how do you cook this stuff with a baby around again? It looks absolutely divine.

    April 17, 2007 at 6:57 pm
  • Is French tap water really better for watercolors, Carol? How fascinating. It is terrible on hair, long-term, because of the quantity of calcaire in it (which for the longest time I thought meant calcium, but I finally figured out–I hope correctly–that it was chalk). I wonder if the chalk is the reason it might be good for watercolors?

    Amy, I say, “Mon chéri, I was thinking of making some crème anglaise, but there is a lurker holding onto my legs complicating matters.” And he says, “Crème anglaise? Really? Really? Mia, come play with Daddy.” It is a little cool for us, compared to what’s normal this time of year, but I know you would love it in contrast to what you’ve been having.

    April 17, 2007 at 8:31 pm
  • Sarah

    Hi Laura!

    I read your book and loved it, and I’ve been reading your blog pretty much since you started it, but I’ve never commented, even though I’ve wanted to many times. I’ve been very close, because you are SO RIGHT about pretty much everything, and hilarious to boot. And you like Robin McKinley which automatically makes me like you even more. And you led me to, and when I was in NYC a few weeks ago (I live in Atlanta), I looked for macarons and tried one for the first time (it was really excellent, but I am withholding my final judgment until the next time I am lucky enough to find myself in Paris and can try one there). So what I’m trying to say here is yay for you! I’m sure your voice does sound exactly like Lauren Bacall’s (that was who you wanted to sound like, right? Or am I making that up? It’s been a long, chocolateless day.)

    Anyway, the reason that I have finally decided to comment is because I need to express my gratitude to you for solving a mystery for me. I am also from a town in Georgia (Roswell), and I also left America for foreign shores, only the foreign shores that I picked were Scotland’s. I did my junior year in college at the University of St. Andrews. I lived in a university residence hall, and it had its own dining hall which served us appallingly awful food. I think the budget was about 35p per student per meal. I would relate to you some of the horrors, but I seem to have blocked most of them from my memory – probably for the best, really. However, by some miracle, many of the desserts were really REALLY good, especially the cakes that they served swimming in a pool of delicious heavy cream. I had no idea what this cream was called, and I’d never encountered it in the States, but man, it was super good. When I got back to Georgia after my year in St. Andrews, I missed it so much that the next time I had chocolate cake, I desperately tried to recreate this cream sauce goodness by pouring a glass of milk on it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that IT WASN’T THE SAME. In fact, it was a waste of a perfectly good chocolate cake (of course, being a dedicated chocoholic, I ate it anyway, soggy with skim milk and all). After this depressing episode, I gave up on this cake with heavenly cream on it idea, and concluded that this was just one more reason that Scotland is the best place in the world.

    Until today. Today I directed my browser to your blog, thinking to myself, I wonder what wonderfully witty things Laura has written for her public? And there on your page was the answer (I think) to the mystery of the delicious cream sauce. Creme anglaise? It MUST be! Really it must. I’m convinced. I’m going to make some this weekend to see, but it SOUNDS like it’s the same thing. I have to admit, I’m a little bemused that it’s creme anglaise and not creme écossaise, but I guess you can’t have everything. Of course, if it’s not and my hopes are dashed yet again, well, I know who to blame. ;D

    Well, now that this comment is a lot longer than I meant it to be, I’m gonna go. Keep up the good work! Write a new book soon!

    Oh, and one more thing – your husband is every bit as cute as you make him out to be. I was all set to be disappointed; I thought “how, HOW can anyone POSSIBLY live up to all of this?” But then you posted that photo, and he does, so well done you. 🙂

    April 17, 2007 at 9:31 pm
  • I’ve run into that cross language word thing in assorted ways before. Out here in the west it happens a lot with Spanish. I remember someone trying to ask me for avocado dip, explaining how it’s made… I finally realized what they meant and asked “You mean guacamole?” And there’s a lot of Spanish place names. Most people naturally use the proper pronunciations – Spanish vowels always sound the same way, unlike English where sometimes it seems we just through letters together and then try to come up with the least plausible pronunciation. I mean, really. But sometimes it gets confusing and I’ll forget and use Spanish pronunciation on English words.

    I’d really love to learn French now. I’m curious how badly I’m butchering the few French words I use or attempt. but I can’t find a class in the area. Bummer.

    anyway….. the Crème anglaise sounds devine. As does the chocolate torte. I could really use some chocolate in a bad way today. But I’m settling for a Starbucks Dulce de Leche Latte.

    April 17, 2007 at 9:48 pm
  • Oh, wow . . . yum! I think I’ve made something similar to that little piece of chocolate heaven up there. So easy and delicious. I’ll have to try this one, because I just know anything you post here will be better. Crème anglaise sounds like the perfect companion to chocolate, although I have never made it, don’t even thing I’ve had it before? As if just regular old creme fresh or whipped cream or whatever wasn’t bad enough, lets at a bunch of egg yolks to it. Hehe, but from the Land of Everything Fried, I pass no judgment on my sister culture’s choice of health food. We just eat and live happy.

    April 18, 2007 at 8:22 am
  • Oh, Happy Day. You’ve posted directions for a choco-torte, and I was actually searching for one. You make my life so eady, my friend. My younger son is having a party to celebrate his first DOUBLE-DIGIT birthday, and wants ‘a chocolate cake that isn’t a cake’. So of course I thought of a torte. Now I even have a recipe. I may have to take pics and let you know how it turned out.

    April 18, 2007 at 8:25 am
  • Wait! I feel I should state for the record that I am NOT a professional in the kitchen, I am just chocolate-obsessed. So…I cannot guarantee, Michelle, that this one is better. There are so many flourless chocolate tortes recipes left to try. This one did turn out better than some; I have another that has a very good flavor but fails to work a good 50% of the time. This one was easy. Eat and live happy is the way to go.

    Sarah, THANK you for joining the comments, especially for all the sweet praise. You may also have solved the mystery of WHY this thing is called “English cream” in the first place. First of all, most French don’t distinguish too much between the English and the Scots unless they’re contemplating a vacation in Scotland, but maybe also the English have the same cream habit and the French picked it up from them? Now for historical reference I am dying to know what this dates back to…it it’s the 17th century when so many Scots and English were living in France, I shall be overjoyed.

    Also, you cannot blame me if it doesn’t work. *I* have just learned how to make CLOTTED CREAM, so I hold POWER over people who miss Britain. (Do you like clotted cream?)

    We had a similar student restaurant in France, by the way. It was edible, but purely in an eat-to-live kind of way.

    I love the avocado dip, Laume. 🙂

    April 18, 2007 at 2:31 pm
  • Sarah

    I have to confess: I have no idea if that’s why it’s called creme anglaise. I meant my comment about creme ecossaise more in a tongue in cheek-I-may-not-be-from-Scotland-but-I’ll-wave-the-saltire-and-make-jokes-about-the-English-anyway sort of way (I really do love the English too). So who knows? No matter who came up with it though (I’m happy to give groundless credit to the Scots, since that’s where I first had it, but others might not have similar personal prejudices…), it’s pretty much awesome.

    Also – and I’m not sure how this is possible – I’ve never had clotted cream. It sounds like something I’d like, though, so if you’re in a recipe sharing mood, please, share away!

    April 18, 2007 at 5:17 pm
  • Yum. Joseph Conrad would approve.

    April 19, 2007 at 8:35 am
  • oh me… I think I could die happy after a bite of Cream Anglaise and Heart of Chocolate…sigh!

    April 19, 2007 at 10:59 am
  • Rats. And here I was thinking the recipe for clotted cream would give me so much power over anyone missing Britain. Foiled again. So, is that less common in Scotland than in England? My niece misses it so much. I will share the recipe soon! It is very easy.

    And to make up for being foiled, I have done something that will allow me to do the Best Chocolate Witch Laugh Ever. Coming soon.

    Mimi, I had many ironical red-herring type thoughts on that dessert name, Conrad, colonialism, western hegemony, cacao production…that is SO the type of thing we did in grad school. But I restrained. Sat on myself. I have to do that sometimes when my graduate school days rear their hydra heads in the middle of innocent recipes or other moments.

    April 19, 2007 at 7:30 pm
  • I wish I had been as samrt as Sebastien and kept my Kiki…althiugh no creme anglaise for him…all for me!

    April 22, 2007 at 3:49 pm

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