My Nonna comes from the school of approximate cooking. Half Turkish, half Lebanese, born in Egypt and educated by French nuns, she was not short of culinary inspiration, nor of the unconscious confidence earned from a lifetime in the kitchen – peppered with interruptions to raise children and play poker.
Recipes from my Nonna are scrawled on envelopes and scrap paper and stored inside the cover of an old notebook in the second drawer down in my parent’s kitchen. My mother began collecting them early in her marriage with the best of intentions, but it was left to me to unearth the yellow edged crème caramel recipe and reignite the gas burner.
The recipe was written in the idiosyncratic system of a woman who may never have owned a measuring cup. I navigated it with only the vague signposts of ‘spoons’ and ‘glasses’ for guides and Christmas after Christmas I perfected it. I remember the year when I worked out how to prevent divots in the top, the perfecting of the sugar/egg/milk ratio and the unexpected satisfaction of overcooking the caramel.
About eight Christmases into the process my Nonna pulled me aside and casually told me that she always added a little lemon zest. What? I was incensed that she had let me toil for years while playing this ace card so close to her chest. It was a long apprenticeship.
Here are all our secrets:
1. Make the caramel first, do not make the custard at he same time. The caramel needs time to set before you put the custard in, so if you do it in order and don’t rush it works.
2. Put some sugar, water to cover and the juice of half a lemon in a saucepan. Boil until caramel is quite dark. Pour into a greased round cake tin and cover the bottom with a layer about half a centimeter thick.
3. Beat 4 eggs, 8 dessert spoons of sugar and a capful of vanilla essence together. Then add 2 glasses of milk to this mixture and stir well. This is where you can add optional lemon zest (I don’t actually do this, but it worked for Nonna). Note the ratio of 2 eggs to each glass of milk and 2 spoons of sugar to each egg – it’s so easy to change the quantity.
4. Bake at 180 degrees for 30-45 mins. Ovens vary greatly. – the best test is to leave it in until it starts coming away from the sides of the cake tin.
5. Cool, chill, run a hot knife around the edge, and flip upside down (quickly) onto a plate with sides. Serve with double cream and a strawberry
(c) Jennifer Skapeti 1 November 2010