While Crème Brûlée
may be thought of as a fancy restaurant dessert, it can be made at home. Don't let it
intimidate you, as it's simply a vanilla flavored custard that is baked and then
topped with a layer of caramelized sugar. To me, it's that delightful layer of
brittle caramel that makes this pudding so special. I love how your spoon has to
first crack through the caramel's smooth crispness before you can get to the
silky smooth cold custard that lies underneath. The contrast of textures and
flavors is memorable.
There is quite a debate about whether this dessert is
French (known as Crème Brûlée), British (known as Burnt Cream or Trinity
Cream), or Spanish
(known as Crema Catalana), so I think we'll leave it to the food
historians to figure it all out. But what we do know is that it starts
with a rich stirred custard, a custard that uses cream instead of milk.
The other ingredients needed are egg yolks, vanilla, and sugar. (Some
recipes do not sweeten the custard because of the sweet caramel topping.)
Vanilla seems to be the traditional flavoring, and while you can use pure
vanilla extract or paste, I prefer a vanilla
bean to flavor the custard. I like its' sweet delicate flavor and how
the custard looks so pretty with all those tiny black seeds. When buying vanilla
beans, look for pods that are
shiny and black, tender, plump and moist. Never buy hard, dry and
shriveled beans because they are past their prime. Don't throw away the
pod once the seeds are removed. Wash, let it dry, and then place the pod
into your bag of granulated white sugar, and after a few days you have
vanilla scented sugar. One debate
is whether to bake the custard in a water bath or cook it on the stove
over a saucepan of simmering water. My preference is to bake the custard
in a water bath (bain marie) as it provides the custard with an even,
gentle heat that helps to prevent it from becoming rubbery, tough, or the
dreaded curdling. While you can make Crème Brûlée in one large dish, I
really like the look of individual ramekins that are both wide and shallow
so you get an ample amount of caramelized sugar with each delicious
spoonful of velvety smooth custard.
So once you have baked the custards just until set (a
slight wobble is okay), immediately take them out of the water bath (to
stop further cooking) and let them cool to room temperature. Then carefully place the custards in the refrigerator
(uncovered) for at least four hours, or until cold and firm. Then shortly
before serving, remove the custards from the refrigerator and sprinkle a
thin even coating of superfine white sugar (castor sugar) over the top of
each custard. I like to use superfine white sugar as I find it caramelizes
quickly and easily, although you can use regular granulated white sugar or
even brown sugar. So, now for the tricky part, caramelizing the sugar.
There are two ways to accomplish this, with a hand held small butane
torch (which can be found in cookware stores or on line) or under your
oven's broiler. Either way, brown the sugar until it caramelizes and
just starts to bubble. Try not to warm the custard as you caramelize the sugar, as you
want the contrast of hard sugar coating and cold custard. Once the sugar
caramelizes, let the Crème Brûlée sit a few minutes, or until the
layer of caramel becomes hard. Then serve and enjoy the smiles of delight
from your guests.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven.
Place 4 - one cup (240 ml) Crème
Brûlée dishes or ramekins in a roasting pan.
In a saucepan,
over medium-high heat, bring the cream and the vanilla bean and seeds to the
scalding point (the cream just begins to bubble around the edges). Remove from heat and remove
the vanilla bean.
Meanwhile in a
heatproof bowl beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale
(about 1-2 minutes). (You can do this with a wire whisk or hand mixer.) Gradually pour the scalding
cream into the egg yolk mixture, making sure you keep whisking constantly so the
eggs don't curdle. (Stir in vanilla extract, if using.) Strain into a large
measuring cup or pitcher and then evenly pour the custard into the ramekins.
water bath (bain marie) by
carefully pouring enough hot or boiling water so that the water comes halfway up the sides
of the ramekins. Bake for about 30 - 40 minutes (baking time can vary depending on
size of ramekins and temperature of water) or just until the custards are set (a slight wobble is
the custards from the water bath and cool to room temperature on a wire rack
(about one hour). Refrigerate (uncovered) for at least 4 hours or
until cold and firm. At this point they can be stored (covered) in the refrigerator for
To serve, remove
the custards from the refrigerator. Sprinkle an even, not too thick, layer
(about 1 tablespoon (15 grams)) of superfine sugar over the custards. Using a
hand held kitchen torch, or under a very hot preheated broiler, caramelize the
sugar until it is golden brown and bubbly. If using a torch, place it about 2 inches (5 cm), at an
angle, over the custard and move the torch around until the sugar melts and
caramelizes. Let sit a few minutes so the sugar can harden then serve.
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