Revisiting crème anglaise, a pastry kitchen staple

By Robert Wemischner

On the surface, with its short ingredient list, crème anglaise does not seem very promising as an element of a sophisticated dessert. At its base, it is only a mixture of liquid dairy (milk or cream, or a combination of the two), egg yolks, sugar and a flavoring of choice.

That’s it.

Yet it is a classic for a reason. Every pastry chef worth his or her sugar calls upon this perfectly balanced combination of ingredients for use in many ways, whether as a plating sauce or as a base for mousse, ice cream, Bavarian cream, crème brûlée and crémeux (a sauce that’s set with chocolate or gelatin, or both). When properly made, this mother sauce of the sweet kitchen lends richness, a sense of luxury and a pleasant mouthfeel to just about any dessert.

“Because it’s so versatile, it’s a classic,” says Chef Natasha Capper, executive pastry chef at Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta, who calls it a workhorse in the pastry kitchen. “When making crème anglaise, I like to think of it as a marathon, not a race. The mixture is far more forgiving when cooked over a mild flame and attended to constantly; never walk away from it during that process. Low and slow is the way to go. When done, the mixture should reach about 175 degrees F.”
Shirley O. Corriher echoes Capper’s sentiments, writing in one of her books, “BakeWise,” “Stirred custards without starch, like crème anglaise … require very low heat and constant stirring.” She sums things up by looking at the science behind the sauce, noting the making of crème anglaise involves cooking liquid dairy with egg yolks (about 25% of the weight of the dairy) and some sugar (about 15% to 20% of the dairy). Beyond lending sweetness, the sugar slows down the bonding of the protein in the eggs, yielding a mixture with the consistency of heavy cream at serving temperature. It should not taste eggy; that’s usually an indication that the mixture was cooked at too high a temperature.

Chef Andy Chlebana, author of “The Advanced Art of Baking and Pastry,” and a chef-instructor at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, says about crème anglaise: “It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of preparation. When I teach it, it’s not only about the sauce; it’s also about the steps to a setting up a complete mise en place, [because] timing is everything once you begin the process of cooking any egg-based preparation.”

Chef Chlebana recommends cooking the mixture to 175 degrees F and says that stirring with a heatproof silicon spatula, rather than aerating the mixture with a whisk when it’s being cooked in a saucepan, leads to the best result. Taking the mixture once step further, Chlebana also likes to process the sauce using an immersion blender to create a light foam as a final fillip on a plated dessert.

Chef Geoffrey Blount, program chair for baking and pastry at the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, challenges his students by asking them to create five things with a well-made crème anglaise. “After a couple of times using a thermometer when cooking the mixture, I insist that students rely on visual cues to indicate when the sauce is done,” he says. In addition to creating a crémeux that’s jellified with chocolate, he’s also made an Orange Dreamsicle Bavarian cream in which the crème anglaise is set with gelatin and the mixture is lightened with whipped cream.
Harking back to an oldie but goodie, Blount also enthuses about oeufs à la neige (“snow eggs”). In this no-waste classic, all of the egg is used. Ingenious and thrifty, the dessert features egg yolks for the crème anglaise, which serves as the pool upon which milk-poached, egg white-based meringues float. Classically, a bit of golden caramel and toasted almonds finish the ensemble.

Chef Michael Zebrowski, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and co-author of “The Pastry Chef’s Little Black Book,” uses a soda siphon with C02 chargers to aerate a finished crème anglaise. “I also love to make a semifreddo — which merges the chilled custard sauce with meringue and whipped cream in a frozen molded dessert — flavoring it with everything from pureed, sweetened chestnuts to Armagnac, a French brandy; Grand Marnier; or a croquant of hazelnut and almond,” he adds.

With its quartet of ingredients each playing an important role, crème anglaise is a symphony of flavor and texture. Today, as we reach for comforting classics in a time when everything old seems new again, consider reconsidering this sauce as a versatile addition to any pastry pantry.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.