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Crème caramel is a French dessert with a simple custard base and a soft caramel topping, related to crème brulee except that the dessert is not fired before serving to create a hard sugar crust. A number of nations make variations on crème caramel, and the dish is extremely popular. Since it is served chilled, crème caramel is an excellent dish to pair with a heavy or hot meal, since it cools and calms the stomach. It is also remarkably easy to make, requiring a few simple tools and ingredients.
In much of the Latin American world, crème caramel is known as flan. Flans are often flavored with assorted things, and they may be baked with heavy cream for a more intense flavor. In Italy, the same dish is called crema caramella, and it is sometimes known as crème renversée in French, a reference to the fact that the dish is inverted when it is served.
Usually, crème caramel is baked in individual ramekins, with a layer of caramel in the bottom and custard on top. When the crème caramel is served, the ramekin is inverted onto a plate, and it may be garnished with mint, chocolate shavings, another sauce, or anything else the cook might imagine. Typically, the dessert is flavored with vanilla, although other flavorings could certainly be used as well, including caramel for a double dose of caramel cream on the plate.
To make crème caramel, start by heating two cups of milk until it is scalded, but not yet boiling. While the milk heats, whisk four eggs together with one cup of sugar until the mixture turns pale. Slowly add the milk to the mixture, allow it to cool to room temperature, sieve it, and set it aside, ideally under refrigeration. The base can be flavored with vanilla beans simmered in the milk, or the addition of flavor extracts.
Once the custard base has been made, melt one cup of sugar in one tablespoon of lemon juice, using a heavy saucepan, until the mixture turns golden brown. Immediately turn out into ramekins or custard dishes, and allow it to cool before adding the custard base. Put the ramekins into a water bath, which will help prevent cracking, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius) for 30-40 minutes, until the custard jiggles slightly when bumped. Allow the ramekins to cool before refrigerating, and serve chilled with a garnish of choice.