I almost missed my flight out of Charles de Gaulle once, when luggage scanners found one of my bags full of cartons of a liquid so dense it was almost solid. The tension finally broke with a murmur of approval from the security workers when they opened my bag.
"Le blah blah l’Américain blah blah oui oui blahblahblah le Crème Anglaise.”
Translation: “The American wants to bring home some Crème Anglaise. Can you blame him?”
It translates into “English cream” and is often referred to as “pouring custard.” The thick, velvety creaminess of this yellow sauce permeates the crannies of the baked goods onto which it is so often poured. There was never enough on mine. I wanted to drink it.
In a Paris supermarket one day, I noticed that Crème Anglaise was available in boxes like the ones in which you buy soy milk. I bought a carton and clawed it open on the sidewalk. It was not the same as the freshly made stuff in restaurants. It was thinner and like an extra-smooth version of eggnog, minus the nutmeg. And that was my first inkling of the existence of a gradient among drinking custards.
Freshly made Crème Anglaise occupies the thick extreme of that spectrum. At the absolute other end is store-bought eggnog, which isn't really a custard as much as a thick liquid.
When you make eggnog at home, you can make it as French as you want it to be. By French, I mean thick, creamy and smooth. For practical purposes, that means more cream, more eggs and more stirring. The finest eggnog recipe I know, my friend Luci's, is essentially a thin version of Crème Anglaise, along the lines of what they sell in cartons. It's made via a nearly identical process, but with fewer eggs and lighter cream, and is thin enough to drink without shedding its custardy body.
So here they are, the two recipes that matter. The two ends of the edible eggnog spectrum worth exploring.
Makes two cups
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
3 tablespoons sugar
2-inch section vanilla pod, split
Combine milk and cream and heat slowly with the vanilla pod. Meanwhile beat the yolks and sugar together. When milk is about to simmer, with bubbles forming on the edge of the pot, add it in a very slow, thin stream to the yolks, beating furiously the whole time with an egg beater or immersion blender. You want the yolks to heat up very slowly as the milk is incorporated. If, at this point, it doesn't look like scrambled eggs, continue. Put the mixture back in the milk pan (sans vanilla pod) and heat very slowly, stirring often. Swirl the mixture around in the pot and look at the bottom. As soon as a layer of custard starts to build on the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat, pour into a vessel, and allow to cool. It only takes a few seconds, and is easy to overdo at this point. Alternatively, wait until it coats a spoon.
This is the thick stuff, restaurant-grade, and is meant to be poured on top of something similarly decadent. What's amazing is this sauce would be even thicker if pure heavy cream were used. In any case, if you're looking for something to drink, look below.
Makes eight cups
6 cups milk
2 cups cream
3 whole eggs
3/4 cup sugar (I prefer maple syrup, to taste)
Pinch of salt
Fresh ground nutmeg
Combine milk and cream and heat slowly with the sugar and salt. Beat the eggs. When milk is about to simmer, with bubbles forming on the edge of the pot, add it in a very slow, thin stream to the eggs, beating furiously the whole time with an egg beater or immersion blender. "Slowly a little at a time so you don't cook your eggs," says Luci. If, at this point, it doesn't look like scrambled eggs, continue. Put the mixture back in the milk pan and heat very slowly, stirring often. Add vanilla and ground nutmeg to taste. When it coats a spoon, or starts to accumulate at the bottom, it's done.
Whether you call it eggnog or Crème Anglaise, the thickness of your custard can be adjusted with the amount of egg (or yolk), and by adjusting the cream content. For something thicker, use pure heavy cream (and invite me over). For something lighter, you could combine the milk with almond milk or cashew milk instead of cream. You could even use pure almond milk, or cashew milk, which will result in something that isn't quite custardy, but is still remarkably thick and smooth and full, and most importantly decadent, thanks to the egg.
Ari LeVaux lives in Montana and New Mexico and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @arilevaux.