Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Crème Brûlée Demystified

Everyone loves crème brûlée. At least I think everyone loves it. What's not to love? Silky, vanilla-infused custard. Crackling, caramelized sugar crust that gives off a sound like a snapping twig when you plunge your spoon into it. An almost other-worldly reaction to the first bite and a profound sense of regret when it's all gone. It's all good.

What surprises me, though, is that so few people make crème brûlée at home, opting instead for ordering it in restaurants where it all too often suffers because of the constraints - mostly related to being able to serve it on demand - placed upon a kitchen that doesn't take its dessert program seriously. My hope is that you'll take this opportunity to follow along and learn to make your own. After all, it has all of four ingredients and is within the capabilities of a mature 10-year-old, but for some reason it intimidates the hell out of people.

Let's begin at the very beginning. Crème brûlées is nothing more than a custard which, at its most basic, is milk or cream sweetened and thickened as it cooks with eggs or egg yolks. Pudding is essentially a custard. So is flan. So is chocolate mousse unless you're using gelatin and so is ice cream; so if you can make any of those things you can make crème brûlée. In fact, crème brûlée is easier than ice cream because you don't have to cook the custard on top of the stove, which can be more than a little tricky.

Begin with egg yoks, sugar and vanilla. For each two servings you'll want two yolks, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanila extract. I realize it's fashionable to use vanilla beans but they're expensive, and I've never figured out how it is that every recipe - no matter how many servings it's supposed to make - calls for one vanilla bean. So, given that variable, I use vanilla extract instead.

There used to be a product called vanilla bean paste. Maybe it still exists but I don't see it at retail any more. Nielsen-Massey made it and someone made it for Trader Joe's (probably the same people). It had little flecks of vanilla bean in it and it had less alcohol than vanilla extract, making it ideal for something like crème brûlée. I'm too lazy to look, so perhaps you can find it somewhere, but I do know that Trader Joe's discontinued it about 3 years ago. Too bad.

To start, beat the egg yolks and the sugar in a bowl until they turn from bright yellow to a pale yellow and form what's called "the ribbon". This is when you lift your whisk out of the mixture and it forms a smooth "ribbon" as it flows back into the bowl. This picture and the next one (of the cream going in) are reasonably good depictions of the color before and after beating. This should take about a minute or so.  Add the vanilla and whisk to combine. Note: if you have a bowl with a pouring lip or a big Pyrex pitcher, use it. It will make your life much easier in a few minutes.

In the meantime heat 1/2 cup of heavy cream per egg yolk in a saucepan. Use medium heat unless you're watching it like a hawk. You don't want it to boil over. In fact, despite what other recipes tell you, it shouldn't boil at all. It should just get hot enough to where there are little frothing bubbles at the edge and the middle is starting to squirm a little. This is called "scalding".  It keeps a skin from forming on the cream, which you would then have to strain out. Most recipes call for this step and I have never had to do it.

Now, SLOWLY pour the hot cream into the egg/sugar mixture in a very thin stream, whisking constantly. It helps if you have one of those non-skid bowls, but you can also roll up a kitchen towel, curl it into a circle and put your bowl on it. This will keep it from skating across your counter. The reason for going slowly is to prepare the eggs for the heat of the cream. If you dump the cream in all at once you're going to have scrambled eggs.

After you've added the first half cup or so of cream you can pour much more quickly. Just keep whisking as you do. When everything is combined, pour the mixture into 6-ounce ramekins (this is where the pitcher or the bowl with the spout comes in handy), alternating the pours among the ramekins and whisking between pours so that you don't get a big blast of sugar and egg in the last ramekin. The stuff tends to settle.

Put the ramekins in a large pan and fill it with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is to keep the temperature steady in the oven and to keep the custard from over-heating. Water won't get any hotter than 212 degrees no matter how long it boils.

Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven. The edges will be fairly set when you jiggle a ramekin but the middle will still look underdone. If you're in doubt, let them bake a little longer. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool in the pan until they've reached room temperature and refrigerate until serving time.

When you're ready to serve, it's time to caramelize the tops and not before. This is where restaurants often run into trouble. They caramelize the tops and store the desserts in the refrigerator. This causes the caramelized sugar to absorb moisture from the custard and lose its crunch. You have to wait until the last minute, but you'll also need to make a trip to Home Depot, Lowe's or Ace hardware for an uncommon kitchen tool, the BernzOmatic torch.

Don't think for one minute you're going to go to Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table or some other kitchen shop where they'll sell you a small torch especially designed for the job ahead. The only thing it's going to be especially designed for is failure. They're powered by butane like a re-fillable cigarette or cigar lighter and, while they create a flame, it's not nearly hot enough. By the time your sugar is caramelized the custard has warmed, ruining the dessert.

While it may look unwieldy and a bit like going squirrel hunting with a cruise missile, you need one of these bad boys. This one has automatic ignition which is handy, but it does cost extra. Unless you're askeert of lighting one manually with a sparker, a match, a lighter or the burner on your gas range, save your money.

Okay, so now it's time to do the deed and create a caramelized sugar crust. Simply sprinkle some regular table sugar on top, completely covering the custard. I know people who swear by Turbinado sugar or raw sugar or the stuff they sell as "granulated cane juice" or some such, but I always go back to regular, granulated sugar.

One thing, though. As underpowered as the little kitchen torches are, you'll need to be careful with one of these because they ARE powerful. Don't hold it too close the dessert or you'll incinerate the thing, and by all means be careful where you put your fingers. You can't just set the ramekin on the counter because the torch will flame out if you invert it too much, so you'll have to hold it - even though I'm not holding it in the picture because of logistics but the torch flamed out right after the picture was taken.

If holding the dish scares you - and this is really the only part where a ten-year might have a tough time with the making of crème brûlée - get an asbestos or other flameproof glove to hold the ramekins in. Keep the torch a good distance away as I'm doing here, move it constantly, and even twirl the dessert to spread the sugar around as it melts. Let it cool until it has formed a crust and, voila . . . crème brûlée!

Enjoy! Oh . . . crème brûlée goes really well with a sweet dessert wine with some acid. Sauternes is ideal, but anything with a lot of residual sugar and some acidity like a late-harvest riesling will work.


  1. Hello Bob! Thank you for mentioning us! Our Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste is still available both in specialty retail stores as well as online at Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, The Baker's Catalogue, etc. Thank you again and keep up the good work!

    Matt Nielsen
    Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

  2. You make the best creme brulee I have EVER tasted. :)

  3. bob, your writing is wonderful! once i start reading, i can't stop! i am off to buy a torch and some Nielsen-Massey Vanilla!:)

  4. Wow! You make this look like I could do it. The flame part still scares me a little bit, but I could just make hubby hold it while I torch it. :)

  5. I am so going to try this! If my Mr. Wonderful will loan me his torch. Thank you for such detailed instructions. Robin

  6. ohhh....Yummy! One of my favorites, to be sure! Haven't made it myself yet, but I'm inspired! AND my sweetie has one of those big fat boy torches. Now...if I can keep myself from eating all of it myself! Thanks for the coaching!