Recipes for crème anglaise vary quite a bit in their proportions of milk, cream, eggs, and sugar (some use no cream at all). This is our favorite because it’s neither too rich nor too milky, and it’s thickened enough without tasting too eggy.
Combine the milk, cream, salt, and about half of the sugar in a heavy-based saucepan that holds at least 2 quarts. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add both the seeds and the bean to the milk mixture. Bring just to a simmer over medium- high heat. Remove from the heat and let steep for 15 minutes, stirring frequently to keep a skin from forming.
Fill a large bowl with a few inches of ice water. Have ready a smaller metal bowl that will fit into the ice-water bowl, and a fine sieve. Reheat the milk mixture over medium-low heat until hot but not simmering. Meanwhile, in a medium heatproof bowl, whisk together the yolks and the remaining sugar. When the milk is hot, whisk about 1/2 cup into the yolks, and then whisk the yolk mixture back into the milk. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens ever so slightly and passes the spoon test. The temperature should be about 175°F. Immediately strain the sauce into the waiting metal bowl and set the bowl in the ice bath. Stir occasionally until the sauce is cool. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce (to prevent a skin from forming), and refrigerate for up to three days.
When first combined, the sauce is too thin to coat the back of a spoon dipped into the sauce.
Once it's cooked long enough, the sauce thickens just enough to coat the back of the spoon and hold a line drawn through it with a finger.
Customizing your crème anglaise
With the addition of a single ingredient, crème anglaise takes on a new identity. In fact, from one batch of crème anglaise, you can make several new sauces. Add a little of your favorite flavor extract to taste, or try one of these combinations. The amounts given here are only guidelines; feel free to adjust them to suit your tastes.
Clockwise from top: Limon, Hazelnut-Vanilla, Raspberry-Vanilla, Espresso, Chocolatey Vanilla.
For every 1/2 cup of crème anglaise, add:
2 Tbs. puréed and strained fresh or frozen raspberries
3/4 tsp. Frangelico (or try another liqueur)
3/4 tsp. instant espresso powder dissolved in 1/4 tsp. warm water
1/2 tsp. finely grated mixed lime and lemon zest (or try other citrus zests)
Chocolatey Vanilla Sauce:
1/2 tsp. Dutch-processed cocoa
Photo: Scott Phillips