Invoke those two magic words, Creme Brûlée, and folks will oooo and aaaa, gush over elegance and mad kitchen skills, and drop the names of preeminent culinary schools. But the fact is, Creme Brûlée is fairly easy to make. It just involves a step by step process, as with any other recipe. The steps aren’t even that complicated. I suppose people are intimidated because Creme Brûlée shows up on the dessert menus of fancy restaurants and is often pricey. Throw in the lusciousness and decadence of the dessert and it is not a big leap to think that it must require black magic inspired kitchen prowess and a deal with the devil to make well. This is so not true. Perfection of this dessert is within reach of any home cook. Once you have the procedure down, and as long as you pay attention to the details, you should be able to turn out Creme Brûlée as good as the desserts you get in high end restaurants.
First, as with any elegant and rich dessert, the ingredients matter; more so here, because there are only three main components, all of which suffer from degradation and spoilage over time. So, freshness and quality are key.
Second, each step of the process, though simple, is as important as every other step and thus no step should be skipped or addressed with reduced attention.
Third, proper equipment will make this process easier and more likely to succeed and impress.
Finally, this is a fun dessert to make! Sure, there are lots of fancier looking desserts, composed of far more exotic ingredients, that really do take mad kitchen skills to get right; and Creme Brûlée is, at face value, merely a custard with a bit of caramelized sugar on top. Still, to my way of thinking, there is something magical in taking very few, simple ingredients and transforming them into one of the most famous and toothsome desserts in western culinary tradition. Make this well and your guests will gobble it up and be ever in awe of your extraordinary culinary skills. We’ll keep how easy it is between you and me … mums the word.
There are variations on the method and ingredient proportions, but I find the following setup to work best. I like to make big, deep Creme Brûlées, hence the 6oz ramekins. Each ramekin of custardy goodness can be shared by a couple people or eaten entirely by a single, enthusiastic Creme Brûlée lover.
Serves 6 to 12
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean
8 egg yolks (Search YouTube for ways to easily separate eggs.)
3/4 cup sifted sugar
Pinch of salt
Teaspoon of sugar for each Creme Brûlée
Preheat conventional oven to 300 deg F. (Convection ovens should be set to 275 deg F.)
Pour the heavy whipping cream into a sauce pan and add the pinch of salt.
Slice the vanilla bean in half down its length and scrape out the paste of tiny vanilla seeds and place this and the leathery bean skin into the pan of cream. Heat the cream on low till it is just about to boil. Be sure to stir every couple minutes after the cream starts to foam.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together vigorously until the mixture is light yellow and a ribbon forms.
Once the cream is off the heat, whisk the egg/sugar mixture as vigorously as you can for two more minutes to ensure a strong ribbon has formed. If you have a stand mixer, this makes it easier, but really, we can all use a little more exercise.
Pour about quarter of the cream into the yolk/sugar mixture while stirring constantly. Stir for about 30 seconds and add in another quarter of cream while continuing to stir. After another 30 seconds of stirring, slowly pour in the rest of the cream while stirring. Stir for another minute. This method of adding a hot liquid to eggs is called tempering and it keeps the eggs from curdling or cooking. If you do this too fast and don’t stir constantly, you will end up with scrambled eggs in your custard; not appealing at all.
Ladle the custard mixture through a fine mesh strainer and into a two quart container with a spout.
Place 6, 6oz or 8, 4-5oz porcelain ramekins into a high walled roasting pan. Pour the cream mixture through the strainer into the ramekins.
Fill the roasting pan with boiling water to about 2/3 up the sides of the ramekins. This water bath (also known as a bain-marie) is critical to the smooth, gentle heating of the custard so that it will set without curdling. If you skip this step and put the ramekins directly in the oven, you will end up with something dry, gritty, separated, and ill suited for use as anything but dog food (and that, for a dog you really don’t like very much).
Place the pan in the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway through and add more boiling water if the level has dropped to below half way up the sides of the ramekins.
When time is up, remove the ramekins to a towel covered surface (I use the jar extractor from a canning set to accomplish this pain free) and cover with a clean, lint free kitchen towel to cool for at least one hour. Place the Creme Brûlées into the refrigerator for another hour (till no longer steaming) and then cover each with plastic wrap and chill for at least six more hours.
When ready to serve, remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar on the top of each Creme Brûlée. Tilt and rotate to evenly distribute the sugar across the surface. Use a kitchen torch or a propane torch to carefully melt and caramelize the sugar topping. Allow the caramel to cool and harden for a minute before serving. An oven broiler can be used to achieve the same effect, but note that the ramekins and Creme Brûlées will also heat up a little more. Also, you will need to watch the surface of the custards very carefully, as sugar goes from nicely caramelized to completely burnt very quickly. Which method you use will depend on the temperature at which you want to serve your Creme Brûlées; some people like their Creme Brûlée a little warm and others like them cooler. I have seen this dessert served both ways in restaurants. I like the drama and showmanship of an industrial propane torch sporting a roaring, 4 inch long, blue flame all in service of a readily visible transformation of sugar granules on the surface of the custards to golden, crackly, carmel. It adds immeasurably to the experience.
There are lots of possible variations to this dessert by way of the subtle flavor added to the cream. Ginger works well, so does orange zest, and Meyer lemon zest. My favorite is still the traditional vanilla.