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Creme Brulee – Ooh la la!

September 22, 2011

Though no one exactly knows where creme brulee comes from or how it started, it is generally believed to be a french custard dessert whose recipe was discovered in 1691.  Depending on where you live in the world, this dessert is known by several names: crema catalana, crema cremada or crema de Sant Josef in the Catalan region of Spain; or Trinity Cream in England.

At its core, creme brulee is essentially a rich custard base, normally served in an individual ramekin, topped with a contrasting hard caramel crust.

It’s a dessert that I’ve always enjoyed ordering at a restaurant, but I never thought I’d be able to make myself.  First of all, just hearing the word “custard” is intimidating enough.  How the heck do you make custard?  It can’t be that easy.  It’s certainly not like making Jell-O pudding!  Then after making the custard, if you ever figure out how to, you’ve still got to make the hard sugar crust.  All of it seems so scary to someone who doesn’t cook all that much.

A few years back, a former co-worker of mine said that she had a recipe for creme brulee that was super easy and basically fool-proof.  I didn’t believe her.  So, a few weeks later, she made a bunch (as in a couple dozen) of creme brulees and brought them into the office for us all to try.  She had just made the custard and as she served it to us in our lunchroom, she put on the sugar crust and used a butane torch to carmelize the sugar.  Let me tell you, this thing was delicious, smoothy, silky, creamy, luscious.  Wow.  And she swore that it was really simple.

I asked her for the recipe, which she willingly gave me, and I decided to jump into the pool and give this dessert a whirl.  My former co-worker swore that she just had a sweet tooth, but wasn’t really a cook, and she was able to make this without messing up, so I should be able to as well.

Now, admittedly, if this isn’t a dessert that you’re planning on making at least a couple of times, it’s probably not worth your time and money to make this at home as there’s a fair amount of items I had to purchase that I didn’t already own or have in my pantry.  The items/ingredients I had to purchase were: butane torch and extra containers of butane, ramekins (started with 4, now I have 8 in 2 different sizes), and a large baking pan that has some depth to it  (at least half the height of the ramekins, if not higher), and finally real vanilla beans.  Ok, the baking pan is one thing that most people probably already own.  And hey, if you’re really a baker, perhaps you already have vanilla beans, though you could substitute for vanilla extract.  And maybe you actually own ramekins, too.  If you already have most of this stuff, then you’re set!  I guess to be honest, I should also mention that I really wanted to be correct in how I made my creme brulees, so I actually bought a package of baker’s sugar which is ultrafine professional-grade pure cane sugar that blends smoother, melts faster, retains more moisture, dissolves easier and bakes more evenly, as well as turbinado sugar, which is natural brown sugar made by partially refining pure cane sugar extract instead of adding molasses to fully refined sugar, which is what most brown sugar is made from.  The baker’s sugar makes it easier to combine sugar into the creme brulee custard mixture.  And the turbinado sugar is a more traditional sugar topping that carmelizes easier on top of the custard.

With all of those ingredients obtained, I was ready to go with making my creme brulee.  In total, the ingredients you needs are as follows: heavy whipping cream, vanilla bean or vanilla extract, egg yolks and sugar for the custard; the topping just requires sugar.  The basic instructions are to heat the whipping cream and vanilla beans together in a pot.  Don’t let the pot boil or the cream will curdle; right as the cream mixture is about to boil (approximately 10-15 minutes) take the pot off the heat.  Let the cream mixture cool for 15 minutes and allow the flavors of the vanilla bean to steep into the cream.  This is also the point where you could add other flavoring if you chose not to use vanilla.  Previously, I’ve added lemon zest and orange zest and both of them have turned out fantastic.  A little bit of zest really goes a long way towards flavoring your dessert.  You could also use liqueur here, such as grand marnier, but since I don’t drink, I’ve never given this a try.  While waiting for your cream mixture to cool, combine your egg yolks with the sugar and whisk constantly until all of the sugar dissolves (this is where having baker’s sugar comes in handy).  You now want to temper your cream mixture into the eggs and sugar.  Slowly add a ladle full of the cream mixture into the eggs, while continuing to whisk the eggs.  Once combined, add a few more ladles of the cream mixture into the eggs and keep whisking.  This process of tempering slowly raises the temperature of the egg and sugar mixture so that you don’t cook your eggs and end up with scrambled eggs.  Once you’ve ladled in about 1/3 of the cream mixture, you’re probably safe to pour the rest of the cream mixture right into the eggs.  Remember to just keep whisking.  At this point, you’re going to end up with a very mixture that is mostly liquid.  You’ll want to pour your custard mixture into individual ramekins about 3/4 full.  Put the ramekins into a large pan that is oven safe.  Once the ramekins are in the pan, fill the pan with boiling hot water that comes up to half the height of the ramekins.  The pan will go directly into a pre-heated oven.  The water creates a water bath for the custard to cook without hardening or scrambling by adding steam and moisture into the mixture.  Bake the custard for 50-55 minutes until cooked.  When you take the custard out of the oven, it will still seem liquidy, but it should be more firm than when you put it into the oven.  At this point, you’ve got to refrain from digging into the custard.  You need to have the custard cool completely; this requires refrigeration (remember to drain the water from the pan!).  The best thing would be to refrigerate the custard overnight covered in your pan, but a couple of hours will do if you can’t wait that long.

Here comes the fun part!  When you’re ready to eat your creme brulee, take it out of the refrigerator.  Put a generous tablespoon or two of sugar (turbinado really does work the best — you can find turbinado sugar in the form of Sugar In The Raw) right on top of your now-firm custard.  Take your butane torch and start to carmelize the sugar.  Now, I said carmelize, which means once it starts to turn brown and melt slightly, it’s done.  I didn’t say burn.  If it turns black and starts to smoke, you’ve taken it too far!  Once you’ve torched all of the sugar in your ramekin, dig in!  You’re ready to eat your delicious vanilla, or chocolate, or lemon, or orange, or whatever-flavor-you-made creme brulee.

I promise, if you ever tried to make creme brulee at home, you’d be just as amazed as I was at how truly easy it is to make.  Don’t be intimidated by it.  There’s nothing to be intimidated about.  Give it a try and you’ll see.  And if you’ve got a sweet tooth and like creme brulee, you’ll thank me for having told you that it’s super simple to make on your own rather than having to order it at a fancy restaurant.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 22, 2011 7:53 am

    You just made me hungry for creme brulee…ooh la la indeed. One of most favorite desserts. I hate when I order it at a restaurant and the bottom has liquid on it….that’s how I judge a good brulee. Yours looks terrific, great job

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