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


59 Wonderful responses to “Creme Anglaise:
Cream or No Cream?”

  • kate

    I once worked in a restaurant where someone labeled the Creme Anglaise as ‘Cremon Glaze’- which, if you think about it, is genius. Obviously he didn’t attend the CIA, but I got a good laugh out of it!

  • Leslie Kelly

    Been reading Madeleine Kamman’s The New Making of a Cook and your Elements of Cooking (in tandem…. interesting similarities/contrasts)… and her recipe for Creme Anglaise calls for “milk of your choice”… which I suppose could mean cream… certainly not skim!
    While we’re on the subject of cake and milk, how about your favorite recipe for tres leches?

  • Rebecca

    A great part of the appeal of creme anglaise for me is that you CAN use cream or milk, that is, whatever is on hand. The best I’ve made was with farmers’ market nonhomogenized milk from some excellent little herd of cows; the flavor of the milk came through beautifully. This is also a great way to play with non-cow milk (sheep, goat, etc).

  • marla {Family Fresh Cooking}

    I spent my childhood summers at my aunt and uncles organic dairy farm in the UK. I bet that raw, unpasteurized milk straight out of the Jersey cows would have made some dang good Creme Anglaise. The idiot cake looks grand swimming in its pool of sauce!

  • billb

    I’m pretty sure homogenization is independent of how much cream has been removed from the milk. You can homogenize “whole milk” which should have all the cream in it, but these days is cut down so that it’s standardized around 3.5% milkfat. What you really probably want to say is “really high fat whole milk” or some such. I don’t think you can even buy non-homogenized milk except straight from a dairy these days.

  • braciole

    A small quantity of cornflour (cornstarch in the American idiom) can be used to thicken a creme anglaise – it will also reduce the chance of the sauce curdling.

  • bobdelgrosso

    I’ve made anglaise and other custards with every imaginable version of milk and found that as you reduce the fat content you need to be extra careful not to curdle the mixture. This is because butterfat (like sugar) interferes with the coagulation of the egg proteins. So when you reduce the butterfat the tendency for the denaturing egg proteins to collide and bond is increased and so is the tendency to develop curds.

    So if you want to make anglaise with low fat milk you need to heat it very slowly or add extra sugar or, as Chef Durfee indicated, starch. Both starch and sugar will interfere with coagulation and help to keep the sauce from curdling.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I second Live to Cook at Home…it is absolutely amazing what I have learned reading this blog. As for Lesley Chesterman, what Montreal would do without her Wednesdays and Saturdays I just can’t imagine. She is a delight to read for all English Montreal.

  • bobdelgrosso

    I forgot to add that low fat milks contain more calcium and other ions than whole milk and cream and that because many of these ions encourage the egg proteins to denature these (ions) play a role in speeding up curdling too.

  • bobdelgrosso

    Whole milk is milk that is adjusted to contain 4% butterfat. If the raw milk from the farm has more than 4% the excess is removed and used for cream, butter or half and half.
    No fat milk is essentially milk plasma with all of the fat removed.

  • Fred

    FWIW, the Culinary Institute of Canada standard recipe uses milk. Its essentially the recipe above, but metric.

  • Chef Gwen

    I remember that story in Sante. I think Laura Taxel wrote it, but don’t remember who she was writing about. She’s based in Cleveland, I think, so you may know her.

  • Susan

    Why does this call for so many egg yolks? Won’t it taste too eggy or is it supposed to taste of egg?

  • Mantonat

    In Denver, there are a couple of mid-sized dairies that sell cream-top (un-homogenized) milk. I’ve found it at Whole Foods and a couple of other local grocery chains. I make cheese at home and the cream-top milk makes much nicer cheese because it’s a little richer and the protein chains are more intact. It’s the best option short of buying a cow share to get raw milk.
    I’m making my wife a Valentine’s day dinner, so I will definitely try this recipe with the cream-top milk.
    For Susan, creme Angaise is a custard-type sauce and as such relies on egg yolks for its richness and thick texture. Sure it tastes a little yolky, but that’s a good thing when the magic of egg, vanilla, sugar, and milk come together.

  • Plays With Food

    I wish you had posted the Anglaise recipe sooner – we only have 2 pieces of the Chocolate Idiot Cake left (made it Saturday). BTW – the cake was delicious topped with a bit of freshly ground peanut butter and a pinch of fleur de sel.

  • melissa

    I get raw milk from a local dairy that keeps pastured Jersey cows (via a friend who makes regular trips out there) and it would be perfect for this, it’s so thick and creamy. And even though I’m not into chocolate I am compelled to try this with some Chocolate Idiot Cake. Mainly because I want an excuse to say “Chocolate Idiot Cake” a few more times.

  • Tags

    Count Richard Olney with the all-milk crowd. In the Time/Life Good Cook Series “Classic Desserts” volume, creme anglaise is made with just milk.

  • Victoria

    This gave me pause so I checked my recipes. I use heavy cream in my creme anglaise and milk in my creme patissiere, which is what Michael Laiskonis said above. I never knew this controversy existed.

    Now I have to try the creme anglaise with unhomogenized milk from the farmer’s market.

    And David Lebovitz’s chocolate cake. Thanks, Michael. Great post – as always.

  • Susan Gillie

    In cooking school, we were told that Creme Anglaise originated because poor people didn’t have access to cream.

    The rich got cream–the poor had to mix egg yolks, milk and sugar to get the effect.

  • Betsy

    In cooking school when we wanted to make a fresh fruit sauce (uncooked) we stirred in some pre-geletinized (instant) starch to thicken the sauce. The starch was cut with some sugar I believe (it’s been awhile since I used it). Is it possible the chef in Cleveland thickened the anglaise with this after it was cooled down?

  • faustianbargain

    cream in the united states is a joke. london has the most beautiful double cream…46-48% butterfat. in india, i used to source cream that was close to 50% butterfat. what does one do with it? except have it straight or place it in a shrine?

    get your own cow. raising one’s own chicken is so passe..just saying.

  • Alex

    Egg yolks, sugar, milk and vanilla are the only ingredients in an english custard. Unless you are using a brand called ‘Birds’ which is cornstarch and flavouring. It is a British insitution

  • luis

    I knew you would come around Michael. Excellent post , I have shamelesly copied the new recipe and the chocolate cake recipe. Thank you.

    Very happy to know that such eminent chefs are grappling with the same issues us home cooks face when trying to make these time honored dishes in a healthier fashion.

    Wonder if I can substitute Agave for the sugar in this recipe?

  • Jami Moss Wise

    Susan–probably true about the origins of the dish with the poor. My grandfather’s family often drank “bluejohn,” or skim milk, because they sold the cream from their milk for cash. So when I was growing up, my grandfather kept Jersey cows because their milk has a high butterfat content, and our milk was probably 6% butterfat–no more bluejohn. It was unpasteurized and unhomogenized, more beige or ecru than white, and I wish I had some now to try in this dish.

  • Maggie McArthur

    Hmmm. Has anyone thought to split the difference and use half and half?

  • SallyBR

    I’ve always made it with whole milk, but it’s fun to read about these heated arguments between different teams…

    Reminds me of…

    “no sugar in my tomato sauce! EVER!”

    “no egg yolks in my pie crust! EVER!”


  • Rhonda

    Wow! I am absolutely astounded at the breadth of talent you organized for this post.

    These are the Big Boys and Women, if anyone is wondering.

    You cannot get this kind of group input anywhere else.

    As Valentines day is approaching, I suggest we change the name to “Hug your nearest Pastry Chef today” or better yet, “Don’t Clap, just throw money!”.

    FYI – Ray, I will let you sleep in until 3:30am on Sunday. Why, because I love you. Happy Valentines Day!


  • Rhonda

    I was going to say “P.S.” Don’t be late but I don’t want to sound like an asshole and staff knows how much I love and deeply respect them.

  • David Owen

    I find it amusing to see Americans disagreeing over what the French say is the proper ingredient for a supposedly English recipe,
    The Brits are total cream freaks – you find clotted cream in grocery stores, (Devonshire cream) etc.

  • Jenny S

    “Of course, with it’s English origins. . .”

    The first time or two you misused “it’s” for “its” I figured it was just a typo, and I was willing to overlook it. Now, I really have to say this: “it’s” = “it is” or “it has”; “its” is the possessive form for “it.” So, “its English origins.” Please.

    I’m sorry to be pedantic, but this drives me insane. Look at your Chicago Manual of Style, sir!

  • Carri

    I. too, have always used only whole fat milk in my anglaise…though with all the information in this post…I can totally see why a littl more fat would be good. much less chance to break! Coincidence would have it that I needed to make a large batch for a special valentine event this weekend and I used your new formula, Michael, it worked great…Thanks! Much less stressful.

  • Dudebud

    One time at a restaurant that I worked in, our pastry chef mislabeled the creme anglaise and rum ice cream, so I had to melt the rum ice cream to order for every chocolate cake I plated.

    Good times.

  • SallyBR

    @MAggie: I like the idea of the hal & half – “Compromise Anglaise” 😉

    I know most serious cooks turn their noses at half and half, but I don’t think it’s that bad.

  • Chris

    I have lived and worked in France for the past 5 years as a pastry chef. I have had French chefs laugh at why creme Anglaise is called creme Anglaise, “but it contains no cream!” I have worked in a few gastronomic restaurants, michelin starred to be precise and in all these places it has been straight milk. For North Americans to say that the milk over here is richer is just not true, the only difference is that it is almost exclusively UHT milk. (Which is terrible, I only buy fresh- which is much harder to find.) Comparing a basic creme Anglaise compared to Ruhlman’s, its much less rich. 1L milk, 10 yolks, 200g sugar and 2 vanilla beans. Cook to between 82 and 85 degrees Celsius.

  • Greg K

    Made some boca negra last night and this too. The creme anglaise stole the show. I might turn it into boozy eggnog tonight. Try and stop me!

  • Cookin' Canuck

    Wow, who knew that this would be such a point of contention? I have never made creme anglaise, but will definitely be referencing this post when I do.

  • Dana N.

    I made the idiot cake with the creme made with milk. We loved it. The cake was rich enough and creme with cream would have made it really, really rich. I like the idea of creme with cream over berries, or berries and angel cake, or something less rich – maybe an apple dessert???

  • michael

    good question vicky! i wrote it that way because I’ve never heard any man say he had to cook gluten free. though no doubt there are many. celieac is equal op as far as i know.

  • Charles Curran

    In this month’s issue of ‘La Cucina Italiana’ there is a recipe for ‘ Creme Anglaise’. 2 large egg yolks, 3 tablespoons sugar, 11/2 tablespoons cornstarch, pince of sea salt, 1 cup whole milk and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. No cream. Cordially Charles

  • David Owen

    Maybe it’s a sort of French humour thing,
    “Crème anglaise, hahaha.”

  • chadzilla

    I was going to add to the ‘gluten free girls’ statement as well. It forced me to think back through all of my years as a chef dealing with various food allergies (and in hotels, which I believe opens the doors for so many more cases of accomodating the guests through 3 meals a day). I have put out many ‘gluten free’ dishes for celiacs, and cannot remember any instance of doing so for guys… seems it’s always been a female (whether adult or child). Are women more prone to this condition than men? Or has it merely been a coincidence all these years.
    Other allergies such as seafood, dairy, nuts, have been across the board for both genders.
    Sorry, I know this is off the subject, but maybe worthy of note. I am also aware that a good many of the ‘allergy claims’ we get are bogus and it’s a real shame because the condition is a serious one.

  • braciole

    @David Owen says: The Brits are total cream freaks – you find clotted cream in grocery stores, (Devonshire cream) etc.

    They may be but most of them prefer their custard out of a packet marked Bird’s Instant Custard Powder, They’re suspicious of anything with eggs in that has not been cooked to destruction.

  • Teri

    Just wanted to let you know of an “aha!” moment regarding creme anglaise and Ratio.
    I live in down in Columbus, and have been doing medieval re-creation and medieval cooking for some years now.
    As you may know, most medieval recipes do NOT give amounts, just ingredients ( and sometimes not all of those…), and you have to redact them for yourself. Last month I did a recipe that was 15th c., basically roasted chicken bits in a garlic and saffron creme sauce. The chicken was easy (don’t hate me- I was cooking for several dozen folks)- I used rotisserie, but the sauce had me stumped. When I redact something I can usually figure out a similar modern recipe, and use that as a starting point, but in all my (good)reference books ( McGee, Corriher, Brown) I could not find a sauce that had no added fat like butter. So I winged it. Eggs, milk, a little salt, garlic paste, saffron. Flavor- spot on. Could have used some pepper, but there were allergy issues. Texture- crap. The eggs completely overcooked and it was not smooth and wonderful. Not a compete fail, but close enough in my perfectionistic world.
    So, flash forward to last week- found a copy of Ratio in the new bookstore down the road ( imagine- Borders and B&N DIDN’T have it!), and devored it in just a few hours.

    Headdesk. Sauce NOT a sauce- but a savory creme anglaise! Would NEVER have thought to look in that direction since I have never seen it in a savory capacity.
    Thanks, man. I am so looking forward to making that again. Have to get some more saffron…
    You so rock! You are now added to the good reference books. Probably will go to you before McGee ( hard to find stuff in there-too big).

    You know- I have some longitudinal graph paper ( don’t ask) -maybe I could make some nifty rotating charts for on the fridge…hmmm.

  • tom | tall clover farm

    Creme Anglaise is a summer staple for me. I have a quart jar in the fridge at any given time during berry season. A couple dollops on bowl of fresh blackberries or raspberries or peaches or blueberries just can’t be beat.

    Throw it into an ice cream freezer and perfection is realized. Thanks for the all-milk recipe — I’m eager to give it a try on some remaining jars of canned peaches.

  • marcella

    crème anglaise – I prepare it all the time. It’s my secret weapon to turn any cake into something scrumptious, even a store-bought panettone or pandoro or a very simple sponge cake. I only use milk, and no starch at all, because I think its thinness is its beauty – it’s more of a sauce really, and it has to be poured, and it has to flow. Also, flavor-wise, cream makes it all a bit too much, IMO. Too rich, too prominent, too primadonna, while in its case subtlety is key.
    (I cook it on top of stove when I’m in a hurry – that is, almost all the time. But to avoid curdling, nothing beats a double boiler and a yogurt thermometre 🙂


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