Crema Catalana, dinner party dessert
April 27, 2015

So you’ve seen the rather immodest rave reviews of the veggie-friendly dinner party starter and main course that Mr Manning and I cooked for our friends (here, and here). But what about the dessert, you ask?

Well, I’d be a liar if I told you that it was a stunning success. I wish I could, because I thought the days of disappointing desserts and pitiful puddings were behind me, especially given the amount of ruddy desserts I’ve eaten in my time. But no, perfection this most certainly was not.

In the quest for dinner party desserts, it’s always difficult to find the right thing. You want to be impressive, but you know people are probably going to be quite full. Do you do something palate-cleansing, or rich and indulgent? One big pud, or individual servings?

Continuing our slightly mediterranean theme, I settled on Crema Catalana. For those of you who haven’t heard of it (I hadn’t), it’s basically an orange-flavoured creme brulee. I opted for this Jamie Oliver recipe, which from the outset seemed manageable even for someone with my meagre skills.

I won’t include all the details, since you can see the recipe in full if you click the link above, but effectively the first thing you’re doing is making a custard by boiling milk with orange and lemon zest, cinnamon and a vanilla pod. Once it’s boiled, you leave it to stand so the citrus, cinnamon and vanilla infuses into your milk, flavouring your custard.

Preliminary stages for Crema Catalana
Boil the milk with the lemon and orange zest, cinnamon and vanilla, and leave it to infuse

In the meantime, whisk a load of egg yolks with sugar and cornflour.

Separating eggs for Crema Catalana
You need to get good at your egg separating for this recipe

Then, strain the milk mixture to get all the bits out, leaving it smooth and silky. Put back on the heat, and just before it reaches boiling point, slowly add the egg mixture and whisk it continuously until it starts to thicken. I think this is where my problems began. Apparently, the time to remove it from the heat is when the mix is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. When is this? It seemed to do that from the very start for me, or maybe I have a different idea of what coating the back of a spoon is. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!

Once it’s done (whenever that is), pour into ramekins or individual dishes. Cover each service with some greaseproof paper, and put in the fridge. At this point, everything seemed like it was going well, and they even looked like they were starting to set straight away. But alas, it was not to be.

A few hours later, when I took them out, set they were not. The custard was still runny. It was like one of those awful moments on Masterchef where you just want to reach through the tele and hug the person who knows they’ve messed it up, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I guess I can console myself with the fact that it wasn’t Masterchef, it was fun with friends, so definitely not the end of the world.

Not to be robbed of his moment of glory, Mr M insisted on continuing with the final step of the recipe – sprinkling sugar on top of each one and caramelising it using a blowtorch. Of course, you can get chef’s blowtorches fairly easily these days, but we don’t have one. What we do have, though, is a proper, butane-propane mix blowtorch. Take it from me, this is NOT the right equipment to use for something like this, and again, might have contributed to the significant lack of perfection of my poor little Crema Catalanas.

Blowtorching Crema Catalana
Finish off the Crema Catalanas by caramelising some sugar on top of the set custard
How NOT to blowtorch a crema catalana
Tip – there is a difference between a chef’s blowtorch and the one you get out of the shed

So, we can write this one off and chalk it up to experience, the irony being that the flavours were actually brilliant. The custard was creamy and vanilla sweet, with the citrusy orange coming through at just the right strength, with only a slight hint of cinnamon, which we all know can sometimes be too overpowering. Everyone agreed, that had it set, and had the top not been burnt to an utter crisp, it would have been an utter triumph, because of course, flavour is key.

So, it wasn’t quite what I had dreamed of, but there’s still hope, so I’ll keep this recipe bookmarked for a second attempt. Needless to say, the individual pots were still all empty by the end of the meal, and it proved an amusing finale to an otherwise fab dinner party.

Final crema catalana, made by Eat with Ellen
They might not have been perfect,but they tasted good

I’ve said it a million times before, and I’ll say it again. This kind of comedy mishap is part of the fun of dinner parties. It’s not about Michelin-starred food, or perfection. Entertaining friends with food is about having fun. Yes, of course you want to produce great food, and of course it’s nice to feed your friends a meal that they know you’ve put a lot of effort into. But it’s about the fun along the way – skinning a cod fillet for the first time, working out how to chop fennel when you’ve never done it before, or laughing over your running custard with your pals. That’s what dinner parties are about – so I declare this the final chapter in one that was a definite hit.