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One French word: lait, a French recipe: crème caramel

Lait, masculine noun (le lait, du lait, les laits) = milk (pronounced lay, you don’t hear the t).

The Milkmaid by Vermeer, in French : La laitière

Lait de vache = cow’s milk, lait de brebis = ewe’s milk, lait de chèvre = goat’s milk, lait d’anesse = asses milk, lait de jument = mare’s milk.

Lait entier = full cream milk, lait demi-écrémé = half cream milk, lait écrémé = milk with all cream removed, lait cru = raw milk, straight from the cow. Lait caillé = curdled milk. Lait condensé = condensed milk.

Cochon de lait = sucking pig, dent de lait = baby (milk) tooth,

Un produit laitier = a dairy product, un élevage laitier = a dairy farm.

Allaiter = to breast feed, allaitement = breast feeding. Lait maternel = mother’s milk.

Expressions include être une vache à lait = (literally to be a milk cow) to be exploited (usually financially); être soupe au lait = (literally to be like milk soup) to be quick to anger (like boiling milk rising rapidly in the pan).

One can see from all the different words and expressions how important milk is in everyday life all over the world. Milk is the main ingredient of my recipe today: crème caramel, which, without the caramel, is called œufs au lait (eggs with milk).

Crème caramel is a staple of French cuisine. Simple, easy to mess up, quite delicious when done properly.

For 4 people you will need:

  • 150ml of milk (full cream is best, you will get the best flavour, but since you are going to add cream, it is not crucial).
  • 275ml of thick liquid cream, known in Britain as double cream, thicker than whipping cream.
  • A vanilla pod
  • 4 large eggs
  • 40gr of sugar
  • and for the caramel another 100gr sugar.

Heating the milk and the cream with the vanilla seeds


Making the caramel

  1. Make the caramel with 100gr of sugar and a scant tbs of water. The method is described in detail here. Pour quickly into four large ramekins or one oven-proof dish of the same or slightly greater volume.
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 150°.
  3. Beat the eggs with the sugar until they are pale yellow.
  4. Boil a kettle full of water.
  5. Heat the milk and the cream together with the scraped inside of the vanilla pod but remove from the heat before they boil.
  6. Add this mixture to the beaten eggs, stirring vigourously all the time so that the milk does not cook your eggs. This is where mistakes are made. If your milk is too hot or you don’t stir enough, you will end up with scrambled eggs.
  7. Sieve this mixture into a jug. This step is important too, it gets rid of any bits that shouldn’t be there (nasty bits of egg white for instance).
  8. Pour from the jug into the ramekins or larger dish on top of the caramel.
  9. Place the ramekins in a roasting pan and pour water from the kettle so that it reaches half way up the sides, no more, and put into the oven for about an hour. Be careful when putting into the oven, the hot water slops easily, and should you get it over your wrists, you are likely to drop the lot, such a waste of time. Be especially careful when removing the pan from the oven.  A golden skin will form on top, the finished crème should be firm.
  10. Leave to cool then place in the fridge. These may be eaten cold or at room temperature, straight from the ramekins, or unmolded on invididual serving plates. Unmolding is delicate and you get some surprises. Run a knife around the edge of the ramekin, place a small plate on top, turn it over briskly and shake a couple of times to loosen.
  11. Should you wish to make œufs au lait instead of crème caramel, add a little more sugar when beating the eggs.

Beaten eggs with hot milk added

Ready in the ramekins

Ready to go into the oven, bathing in boiling water

Ready to come out of the oven, nice and golden and well risen

Ready to eat out of the little bowl...

This is not crème brûlée, I’ll give you the recipe for that another day. It is simple and wholesome, and one of  the best basic French family desserts.

or, if you dare, unmolded and sitting in a pool of caramel

Bon appétit!


About OneFrenchWord

I was a professional linguist and have been a life-long foodie. I am now lucky enough to be retired and free to roam the beaches around my home at the tip of the Finistère (Brittany, France). Writing is occupying a larger place in my life, with this blog and a children's book in preparation. I shall feel much happier calling myself a writer when I have published a book. And so posts on OneFrenchWord will be published first as an e-book, my ambition being to see a glossy volume on French language and cuisine in print some day. So keep reading, and snap up the book when it appears!

8 responses »

  1. Why is it you are hitting on all my favorite foods? I have a creme caramel recipe from a French cookbook that I have used for years, so much so that the page is spattered with golden dots of caramelized sugar. I am dying to try yours. I have never used a real vanilla pod!!

  2. Could it just be that you love your food?! Ah, real vanilla pods make all the difference. And once you have scraped out the seeds, put the rest of the pod in a jar with your sugar to have an endless supply of vanilla sugar.

  3. Yes, same here, this is my all time favourite dessert! Specially when abroad I like to try the crème caramel everywhere. With blushing cheeks I have to admit that I have used the readymade one where you only add the milk!! With the help of your recipe I will make it properly now!
    And yes, I really found the grenouille recipe very interesting to read but I have never seen it cooked!

  4. I do love that Vermeer painting, but then I love all Vermeer’s works; a pity that so few of them are extant. I am hopeless at making Crème Caramel so I only have it in restaurants.

  5. Simply delicious! This is in the oven as I type, and the kitchen and living room are full of delicious milky vanilla smell. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve added a touch of North African flavour to the recipe; I’ve infised the milk and cream with clementine peel and a cinnamon stick.
    I love creme caramel and I have tried many recipes in the past without much success, but I am very confident about this one.
    Thank you

    • No, I’m delighted that you add your touch! Good idea. I wondered about trying it with a bit of saffron… Hope this turns out as you like it. I think all the extra cream makes a lot of difference.


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