One of the first things I learned in culinary school is the concept of “mother sauces”—base sauces, like Hollandaise or tomato sauce, that with the addition of a few ingredients become a big family of related but different sauces. In the pastry kitchen, crème anglaise is a mother sauce that’s used to accompany all sorts of desserts, like flourless chocolate cake, meringues, pound cake, soufflés, poached fruit, and fruit crisps. If you freeze crème anglaise, it becomes ice cream. Culinary school aside, I’ve grown to really appreciate this versatile sauce which can be used as is, or flavored in lots of different ways.
Egg yolk, meet milk
Also known as vanilla sauce or vanilla custard sauce, crème anglaise (pronounced krehm ahn-glehz) is a lightly thickened concoction of milk, cream, sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks. As simple as it sounds, there’s skill and technique involved in cooking the sauce so the egg yolks thicken without curdling. Yolks begin to set around 150° to 155°F. Adding sugar raises the coagulation temperature, but you still can’t just stir the yolks into hot milk. Instead, you use a technique known as tempering, in which you quickly whisk a little of the hot milk into the yolks to gently raise the egg temperature and disperse the yolks into the milk. You can then safely introduce the tempered yolks into the rest of the hot milk. After that, all you need to do is heat the sauce until it thickens a little. As long as you don’t go above 180°F, you’re home free.