Crema Catalana might not be as well known as crème brûlée, which it is most like. But to me, and many others who know it, it is both better and easier.
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The first time I lived in Spain was in Catalunya, and despite some challenges in language, having to learn both some Catalan and Spanish, it was a great place to be based. The region has a beautiful coast, Barcelona of course, as well as Gaudí, cava and more.
But in the small town I was in, the big sell was the food. I will never forget the wonderful market, as well as the great meals we had out.
The dessert list was never long, but had some great choices, like arroz con leche (Spanish rice pudding) and maybe tarta de Santiago (an almond cake) or menjarblanc (a lovely almond pudding). Crema Catalana appeared on nearly all menus and was, and still is, one of my favorites.
What's the difference between crème brûlée and crema Catalana?
Crème brûlée and crema Catalana are very similar, being essentially a sweet custard topped with a crust of crystalized sugar. The main differences are:
- Crema Catalana is generally made with milk, using corn starch to help thicken it, while crème brûlée is made with cream.
- While crème brûlée is normally flavored with vanilla, crema Catalana is infused with orange and often lemon and cinnamon.
- Crème brûlée is often both a thicker, more set custard, and the crust tends to be thicker.
- Finally, the way you cook them is a little different. Crème brûlée is usually made in a double boiler/bain-marie, while you can make crema Catalana directly in a pan over low heat.
There is some debate on which came first, in much the same way as there's debate whether cava or champagne was first. The joy of being neighbors! It's not really that important, of course. And as I say I think once you try crema Catalana you might be converted to it being your favorite.
One of the wonderful things about a dessert like this is not only is it delicious, it takes only a few ingredients and all of them are easy to find locally. In fact, milk is one of the most local ingredients there is (farm to fridge in about 48 hours!), and you can feel good supporting local dairy farmers as you dig in.
How to make crema Catalana
- Warm the milk with the pieces of orange and lemon peel and cinnamon stick to infuse it.
- Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and corn starch (corn flour).
- Gradually add the egg mixture into the warm milk, whisking as you go to ensure you don't get scrambled egg lumps.
- Put back on a low heat and warm, stirring constantly until it just thickens.
- Pour into ramekins (or ceramic dish), let cool then refrigerate at least 4 hours.
- Sprinkle sugar evenly over the top then either melt sugar with a blowtorch or under a broiler (grill) to form a sugar crust.
A quick word of warning: not all sugars work as well as others. The first time I made this, I tried a coarser sugar first and it just wouldn't melt. Instead the top of the crema Catalana browned a bit. I then tried a finer granulated sugar and it worked just fine.
You do have to be a little brave about letting the sugar bubble and caramelize. It can be tempting to take it out too soon. I'll admit I could have left this one slightly longer, but it still tasted great.
Crema Catalana is a wonderfully smooth, creamy dessert. It's got that mixture of feeling slightly indulgent but also rustic at the same time. It's long been a favorite of mine; give it a try and it may become yours too.
Try these other creamy desserts:
- Creme anglaise ('real' custard)
- Peach panna cotta
- Mango cheesecake parfait
- Plus get many more dessert recipes and Spanish recipes in the archives.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 strip orange peel (not zest)
- 1 strip lemon peel (not zest)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoon sugar (fine/regular will work)
- ½ tablespoon corn starch (corn flour)
- 2 tablespoon superfine sugar (to top)
Ahead of time
- Gently warm the milk over a medium-low heat in a small saucepan with the pieces of orange and lemon peel and the cinnamon stick to infuse it. The mixture should become fairly warm but not boiling (small bubbles around the edge are fine).
- Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and corn starch (corn flour).
- Take the lemon and orange peel and cinnamon out of the milk. Gradually add the egg mixture into the warm milk, whisking as you go to ensure you don't get scrambled egg lumps. I usually take it off the heat to do this to help avoid heating the egg too much. (You can also temper the egg mixture by adding a little of the milk to the egg first before then adding the egg to the main milk. I don't usually find I need to do this, but if the milk has become hot this is probably the best option.)
- Put the pan back on a low heat and warm, stirring constantly until it is just thickening.
- Pour into individual ramekins (or ceramic dish), let cool then refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight. I'd recommend covering with cling wrap against the surface to avoid it forming a thick skin.
When ready to serve
- Sprinkle fine sugar evenly over the top then melt the sugar either with a blowtorch or under a broiler (grill) to form a sugar crust.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
This recipe was created in partnership with the dairy farm families of New England. For information about the dairy farm families of New England, school nutrition, and health and wellness topics, please visit New England Dairy.