My brother once had an online alias of “Burnt Cream”. I thought it was particularly strange and asked him what it was all about. He explained to me that it was the english translation of “Creme Brûlée”, his latest favourite dessert. I realized that I had never had it before. I wasn’t a huge egg fan at the time (I blame my insolent youth for not realizing this was crazy sooner) so it was not unusual that I’d never tried it, but I figured, if my big brother considered it a favourite, I had to give it a chance.
From the moment I cracked my first caramelized sugar crust, the distinct, crisp snap as my spoon broke through, I was sold. The smooth, thick, eggy custard under a shell of thin torched sugar, fragile like crystal… the combination of the two intrigued me. The feel of hard sugar crunching between my teeth as smooth custard moved across my tongue.. it taught me a thing or two about contrasting textures.
It didn’t take me long to decide that I had to make the dessert myself one day. Unfortunately, it took me much longer to actually do it.
Often an item on many a fancy restaurant dessert menu, creme brûlée was intimidating. And there was a torch involved. Don’t get me wrong, who doesn’t love lightning stuff on fire from time to time? But when food is involved, all I could see in my head was a horrible burnt mess that tasted like charcoal. I couldn’t wrap my mind around properly controlling such a direct heat source. I was a baker, I understood letting hot air ever so slowly cook my food. Not a loud, blowing flame from my own hands.
I hate to admit it, but several years past between me deciding I had to conquer creme brûlée, and me actually doing it.
Then I watched Alton Brown make creme brûlée on Good Eats and it looked excessively easy. Almost too easy. That daunting torch seemed so straightforward. And just a handful of ingredients were all that it took to create magic.
egg yolks, of course
(Side note: As you probably can tell, I broke one of the yolks, but not a problem! That’s one thing I love about yolks.. way less finicky than the whites)
and vanilla bean.
I love vanilla bean.
In fact, I put an entire vanilla bean in my brûlées when I really should have just put in half a bean. Whoops.
And I’m here to say, Alton Brown doesn’t just make it look easy. It is easy.
Frankly, I’m pretty embarrassed that I was scared of creme brûlée for this long.
Recipe constructed from a combination of Alton Brown and Cooking for Engineers
This recipe is small because I only own four 4 oz. ramekins. If you own eight 4 oz. or four 8 oz. ramekins, feel free to simply double the ingredients and follow all the same instructions.
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- Scrape seeds from vanilla bean and place both bean and seeds in a medium sauce pan with heavy cream. Bring to just a simmer on med-high heat and remove from heat. Carefully remove and discard bean and let cream sit for 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, whisk sugar into egg yolks in a medium bowl. Spoon small amounts of hot cream mixture into the yolks, whisking vigorously to temper yolks. Once about 1/4 cup of the cream has been incorporated, pour yolks into the remaining cream and whisk until smooth.
- Divide mixture evenly among four 4 oz. ramekins. Place ramekins in a larger baking dish and fill dish with boiling water until water level is about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This will provide even baking for the custard.
- Bake in a 250 degree F oven for approximately 1 hour. The custard is done when the edges are set but the centers still jiggle slightly. Cool on a cooling rack until no longer hot to the touch, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours to overnight.
- Remove from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature a bit, 10-30 minutes. (my ramekins are extremely shallow so I only waited 10 minutes. Deeper ramekins should wait closer to 30 min)
- Sprinkle a spoonful of sugar in the center of the ramekin, granulated or turbinado for a slightly thicker crust. Preferably vanilla sugar for either. Pick up and tilt ramekin around, using gravity to spread the sugar on the surface in a thin layer. Add more sugar or shake off excess as needed.
- Using a kitchen torch (or whatever powerful fire source is available… within reason), start in one area and work your way around, caramelizing the sugar to the desired darkness. Try to achieve the desired colour in one area before moving on to the next for easier control.
- Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving. (or you may end up with a caramelized mouth!)
Creme brûlée custards can be made up to 3 days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Do not sugar and torch until shortly before serving.