I need to caveat something I’m about to say with a disclaimer. I LOVE crème brûlée. It is one of my favorite desserts, and I can’t resist ordering it whenever I see it on a dessert menu. It’s perfectly rich and light and not too sweet.
But as much as I love crème brûlée, I love crema Catalana more.
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What is Crema Catalana?
I can hear the questions already: what is crema Catalana and how dare this woman insult crème brûlée that way?!
Crema Catalana is the Catalan cousin to France’s crème brûlée and Britain’s crème Anglaise. But it’s easier. And more flavorful. And – I’ll say it – better.
This dessert is found all throughout Spain but originates from Catalonia, which is the region in the far northeastern corner of the country. You know Catalonia because Barcelona is the regional capital. Catalonia has its own language and own food culture that’s distinct from the rest of Spain. Crema Catalana translates to Catalan Cream.
Catalonia is also where Spain’s cava originates from! Cava is the sparkling wine of Spain, and when my husband and I visited the Costa Brava and Barcelona last year we had plenty of crema Catalana and cold, crisp cava.
What’s the difference between Crème Brûlée and Crema Catalana?
Crème brûlée and crema Catalana are very similar – they’re both made using a mixture of dairy, egg yolks, and sugar. The main differences between the two are how they’re flavored and how they’re thickened.
Crème brûlée isn’t flavored with anything other than vanilla. It usually uses heavy cream, so it’s extra rich. This is natural tasting, unadulterated sweet and thickened cream.
Crema Catalana, on the other hand, uses whole milk instead of heavy cream, and that milk is flavored with vanilla, cinnamon stick, and citrus rind. For me, this adds a complexity of flavor that I really like. There’s a je ne sais quoi about crema Catalana that comes from this extra flavor oomph.
Crema Catalana and crème brûlée are also thickened differently (can you guess which one is more difficult?). Crème brûlée relies on being baked in a water bath to set the cream. Crema Catalana is thickened using cornstarch and is easily heated on the stovetop as a result.
How to Make Crema Catalana
The basic outline of how to make crema Catalana goes like this: flavor infuse the milk –> add egg yolks + cornstarch + sugar + heat to thicken –> cool in the refrigerator –> sugar coat and brûlée the top.
To infuse the milk, you simply heat it with a cinnamon stick, orange peel, and vanilla extract gently. You could use vanilla beans here if you had some, but I liked the flavor with vanilla extract just fine.
While the milk is infusing, you mix together cornstarch, sugar and egg yolks. That gets tempered with the hot milk then mixed together completely with the milk and heated until thickened.
After the Crema Catalana is thickened, you put it into ramekins and let it set in the refrigerator for several hours (plan accordingly!). Then, just like crème brûlée, you coat the top with extra sugar and burn it to caramelize.
Tips for Successful Crema Catalana
I’ve got 3 tips for making successful crema Catalana – actually I have 2 tips and 1 suggestion.
First, use superfine sugar for the crema Catalana. Especially if you’re brûléeing the top using your broiler instead of a kitchen torch (more on that in a minute). You might see this referred to as caster sugar in the grocery store. They’re smaller granules so they melt easier.
Second, temper the egg yolks with the hot milk. If you’ve never tempered egg yolks before, don’t be intimidated – it’s really easy. First mix the sugar, egg yolks, and cornstarch together in a bowl. Then add 2 ladlefuls of the hot milk and whisk together. Add another 2 ladlefuls and whisk again. You’ve now brought the eggs up to higher heat slowly and kept them from scrambling. Yay, you! Now you can safely pour that mixture into the rest of the hot cream and whisk again to combine them.
After all the hot milk is combined with the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch then heat it slowly until it starts to thicken. Almost as soon as the milk stops bubbling, the cream is done. You’ll see what I mean when you make it!
Finally, I have a suggestion. I can’t say this is a tip, because I didn’t even follow this tip. Use a kitchen torch instead of your oven broiler. You can make crema Catalana using your oven broiler (I did!), but you have to watch it like a HAWK and you’ll inevitably end up with some burnt spots.
If those things don’t bother you, or if you need to make crema Catalana like RIGHT NOW (oh hey, here I am) and don’t already have a kitchen torch, then you can make this using your broiler.
If you’re willing to spend $13 and love crème brûlée or crema Catalana, then I would invest in a kitchen torch. One of my good friends brought hers over to make crème brûlée one time, and it was kind of a game changer. You’ll get a much more even sugar crust on the top with no burnt spots.
Spanish Crema Catalana
Crema Catalana is Spain's version of creme brûlée, except easier and more flavorful! An elegant and satisfying dessert
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 3 large orange peels
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¾ cup superfine sugar divided
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 5 medium egg yolks
Start by heating the whole milk, orange peel, cinnamon stick, and vanilla together in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Once it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and let the aromatics steep in the hot milk for 5-10 minutes.
While the milk infuses, whisk together 1/2 cup of the superfine sugar, cornstarch, and egg yolks
Remove the cinnamon sticks and orange peels from the hot milk then add 2 ladles to the egg/sugar mixture whisking to combine.
Continue to temper the egg and sugar mixture – add another 2 ladles of the hot milk and whisk again. After about half of the milk is in the sugar and egg mixture, then add everything together in the medium saucepan and whisk to combine.
Heat the mixture over medium to medium low heat for 3-5 minutes, whisking constantly. As soon as the milk stops bubbling and the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon remove from heat.
Pour the hot custard into individual ramekins and let cool slightly. Cover and let set in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours.
After cooling completely, remove the ramekins of custard from the oven. Coat evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup caster sugar and brûlée.
To brûlée with a kitchen torch, hold the torch parallel to the sugar coating and heat until all the sugar on top is melted and caramelized.
To brûlée with your oven's broiler, first heat the broiler for 15 minutes to get the oven very hot. Transfer the ramekins to a small baking dish so it's easier to move the ramekins around in the oven. Place under the broiler and move the pan to evenly brûlée the tops of the crema Catalana until caramelized. Watch the dessert like a hawk when using this method. It goes from caramelized to burnt quickly!