Zia Lucia passed away five years ago this week. She never married and lived all her life in Poggio Catino, a village in central Italy, in the house where she and all her siblings, among them my father, were born and grew up.
In my childhood and adolescence, she played the role of Fairy Godmother, knitting, sewing and cooking for me pretty much whatever I fancied. She taught me to make crema pasticcera, as a way of making me consume fresh (raw) milk, which I did not like to drink by itself. For decades, that was pretty much the only thing I could make in the kitchen, in the sense of both knowing how to make it and being allowed by my mother to make it in her kitchen.
When I made crema under my aunt's direction, I would pour it in my special gold-rimmed china bowl and carry it to the dispensa, a walk-in pantry located in the coolest part of the house. The dispensa was a special cabinet of curiosities. My aunt made different kinds of jam, fruit in syrup, and giardiniera (pickled vegetable medley). She used ancient-looking glass jars to preserve fresh sausages in olive oil (salsicce sott'olio), let grapes dry into raisins and hung braids of garlic from nails hammered on the edge of the top shelf.
When mid-afternoon came around I retrieved my bowl of crema from the dispensa. Sometimes my aunt scattered on the smooth sunny surface some of her deep purple amarene sotto spirito (sour cherries preserved in alcohol) and I would eat my crema while sitting on the front steps of the house, basking in the sun, surrounded by her pots of hydrangeas, fuchsias and dahlias. I know that my aunt's happiness in life was seeing me so completely content.
I didn't get to say farewell to my aunt. And I didn't get to ask her for her recipes for a long list of goodies she would make for her brothers and their families, when they visited her and for special occasions, like Christmas and Easter. I have decided that, instead of spending my energy regretting something I cannot change, I will invest it into improving my cooking skills.
Here is my recipe for crema pasticcera, derived from my aunt's instructions. I no longer eat a bowl of crema for my afternoon snack. I usually make it as filling for crostata, using the ingredients listed below. Last summer I shared the recipe with Paz of The Cooking Adventures of Chef Paz and she honored me by using it to make a special anniversary dessert.
- 2 extra-large eggs [see Notes below on alternatives]
- 1/3 cup sugar (65 g) [see Notes below on sweetness level]
- 500 ml milk (slightly more than 2 cups) [see Notes below on milk options]
- 3 strips of lemon peel about 3" long and 1/2" wide (using a potato peeler to cut the strips makes it easier to avoid cutting the white part of the lemon) [see Notes below on alternatives]
- 3 tablespoons pastry (or unbleached regular) flour (25 g) [see Notes below on alternatives]
Pour the milk into a pan, add the lemon peel and warm up to to well below boiling point. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until the mixture is bubbly. Sift the flour over the egg mixture and beat briefly until it is incorporated. Temper the egg mixture with a small quantity of milk, then slowly add the rest of the milk, mixing with a wooden spoon. Pour the mixture into the pan and set it to very low heat, stirring at least every couple of minutes. When the froth on the surface disappears completely, the crema starts to feel slightly thicker. From then on stir almost continuously. When the crema reaches boiling temperature and thickens, cook briefly (1-2 minutes), then remove the pan from the heat, remove the lemon peel, place the saucepan in a cold water bath, and stir the crema to bring down its temperature. While the crema cools down, stir it every now and then to prevent the formation of a film over it.
I remember my aunt telling me that the crema should not boil, but according to Harold McGee, it must do so. In the recipe, the addition of flour has the objective of making the crema able to hold its shape. As McGee explains in his book "On Food and Cooking," cream fillings (to which category crema pasticcera belongs) must be boiled in order to get the desired effect, because, "egg yolks contain a starch-digesting enzyme, amylase, that is remarkably resistant to heat," and, unless neutralized, will "digest the starch and turn the stiff cream into a pourable one" (page 98).
- When I have leftover yolks, I use 1 egg and 2 yolks, or 4 yolks. Using all yolks makes a more traditional crema pasticcera. The crema in the photo above was made with 4 yolks that came from having made another batch of the exquisite chiffon cake from last month Daring Bakers' challenge. My aunt's version is lighter in color and texture.
- My crema is not very sweet. You can certainly add more sugar.
- I have made crema using whole milk and also lower fat alternatives (including non-fat milk). However, I have never tried to use a milk-substitute.
- I sometimes use vanilla sugar instead of regular sugar. You can also make a vanilla-flavored crema, by infusing a piece of vanilla bean split in half lengthwise, in the heated milk for an hour or so before using it.
- There are many recipes for crema, and some use different types of starch, like wheat starch and corn starch. I have never tried using them. The higher the amount of starch, the thicker the crema. Keep in mind though that crema thickens a bit as it cools.
- When I made crema with my aunt, I used one egg and 250 ml (a cup) of milk. I sometimes make the same amount (for various uses), in which case the amount of sugar is 3 tablespoons (33 g), the amount of flour is 1 1/2 tablespoons (12 g) and the amount of lemon strip is half the one specified above.
All the possible variations make crema quite versatile. Did I say it that it is delicious?
This is my submission for the Apples & Thyme memoir event co-hosted by Jeni of The Passionate Palate and Inge of Vanielje Kitchen. Here is Jeni's round-up and here is Inge's roundup of Apples & Thyme #1.