David Lebovitz's killer chocolate cake with milk-only creme Anglaise, photo by Donna

David Lebovitz's chocolate cake with milk-only creme Anglaise, photo by Donna

“There’s no cream in anglaise sauce,” the beachcomber said.  He spoke with what sounded like genuine disdain.

“What do you mean there’s no cream?” said I, waves lapping at my ankles, cold mojito in hand.

“There’s no cream.”

“How do you know?”

The man paused as if this were self-evident.  “Alice told me.”

The man was David Lebovitz, for many years a chef at Chez Panisse.  (David just emailed to clarify: Alice did not say cream was verboten, but rather that she liked a very thin Anglaise.)

Our conversation did not devolve into a Thomas-said, Alice-said schoolboy spat, though it did make clear that vanilla sauce, crème Anglaise, deserved another post.  I wrote Vanilla Sauce In Black and White last spring (mainly to show off Donna’s awesome B&W photographs that spotlight texture) and I’m told it resulted in a near fatality.   Food writer Leslie Chesterman was thrown into an apoplectic fit so severe her friends feared for her safety.

She reacted thus, I’m told, because I had included cream in my Anglaise and, as some might tell you, there is no cream in Anglaise.  Unless you’re at the French Laundry, or at the CIA, which is where I got my Anglaise training. (I now see a tweet from the eminent Chesterman who tells me her bigger complaint was the quantity of egg yolks!  I gotta do more fact-checking when I’m having so much fun at other people’s expense!  Sorry Lesley!)

At any rate, all this heat over Anglaise got me thinking.  Lebovitz is no slouch in the brains department; I  admire his books, his blog, and his food no end.  Given that David is always right, how could I have gone so long thinking that an Anglaise usually had cream and not the other way around?

Of course, with it’s English origins, it surely first would have been made only with milk.  Escoffier says milk only.  Why then would I only have encountered the milk-cream hybrid.  After checking various texts, I asked pastry chefs I admired.

Cory Barrett, exec pastry chef of the Lola and its offspring, based here in Cleveland:

“I’ve done both, but more often I use the combo. And to be honest, I use Anglaise as a technique term. If the original was made in the English style, it was probably only milk, but milk that is far richer than what we have here. Therefore cream is now needed.”

Michael Laiskonis, pastry chef of Le Bernardin:

“I have to say that I don’t think I have ever in my life made it with milk alone. Pastry cream, yes. But not Anglaise.  Who’s side am I on, and what do I win?!”

Stephen Durfee, former pastry chef at The French Laundry, now a chef instructor at the CIA Greystone campus:

“You can use either.  I typically make sauces with only milk, but use milk and cream for ice cream bases, etc. Of course, the mouth-feel is so much richer when you use a blend.  I read in Sante magazine how there’s a chef in Cleveland who is making a convincing ‘healthful’ version with 2% milk, fewer egg yolks and some type of quick-setting starch.  I’d love to try it.”

Anyone in Cleveland know who he’s talking about?  We’re a fat loving city so this surprises me.

And finally, the awesome eggbeater, Shuna Lydon:

“I have made milk-only Anglaise a number of times when I wanted to reserve the cream, cold, and pass the anglaise into the cream.  This way the flavor of the cream is not compromised by cooking.

“Creme Anglaise, in my estimation, is now primarily a 50:50 milk cream ratio because full fat milk used to have milk & cream in it both, and now, especially in the West, they’ve been separated from each other. Working in NYC again, right after being in London and before that California, has shown me what a difference good and bad dairy make in all these recipes. The cream here is as light as milk! In the UK, where creme Anglaise was born, there are innumerable grades of cream, and it was a joy to make dairy based desserts.”

Traditional Creme Anglaise (Vanilla Sauce)

Herewith, in homage to Lebovitz, and a curtsy to Chesterman, a wonderful, milk-only creme Anglaise recipe using a standard custard sauce ratio.  David says this goes beautifully with his chocolate idiot cake, pictured above.  It is, as he says, ridiculously easy and intensely rich and flavorful if you use great chocolate.  Or, as James put it, “Dad, when are you going to make chocolate idiot cake again?”  (And it’s flourless, too, for you glutenfree girls.)  If you pair it with the cake, David recommends serving some on the plate and the remainder in a pitcher on the table for those who want a little extra.

16 ounces milk (preferably non-homogenized, with the cream blended in)

1 vanilla bean split down the middle (you can get away with half a bean if you must)

4 ounces sugar (about half a cup)

4 ounces yolk (about 7 large yolks)

Combine milk, vanilla bean, and sugar in a sauce pan and bring up the heat till just before it simmers; remove from heat and allow the bean to steep 10 minutes or so while you prepare an ice bath (a large bowl of ice, with a small bowl set in the ice, with a strainer set in the bowl—you’ll be straining the hot sauce into the cold bowl to halt its cooking).

Whisk the yolks to combine.

Scrape the vanilla beans out of the pod and into the cream (put the pod in some sugar for vanilla sugar).

Bring the milk just  to a simmer, whisk some of it into the yolks to temper them, then add the remaining cream to the yolks while whisking.  Pour it all back into the pot, striring with a heatproof rubber spatula over medium heat until it’s thick, a minute or two or more depending on your heat, until it has a nice sauce-like consistency.  Don’t boil it our you’ll harden the egg.  Immediately strain the coats-the-back-of-a-spoon-thick sauce into the ice cold bowl and stir with the spatula till the sauce is chilled.

Makes 2 to 2-1/2 cups