Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Crème Brûlée

Based on the exorbitant prices I've seen in fine dining establishments I always assumed crème brûlée was only to be attempted by culinary artists, requiring both advanced pâtisserie skill and a myriad of expensive kitchen gadgets. Truth is, crème brûlée is easy. In fact, it is far less finicky than an average custard and requires only a set of oven safe ramekins and an instant-read thermometer (beyond the average kitchen staples) to reproduce this classic.

The concept is simple, half the cream is warmed to facilitate the infusion of the vanilla and to aid melting the sugar. Cold cream is added to cool it down so that when it is whisked into the egg yolks (yeah, there are 15 of those in this recipe) they do not curdle. The mixture is strained just to be sure no lumps exist and then it is poured it into ramekins and cooked in a water bath low and slow for the best possible creamy outcome. Once chilled they are sprinkled with sugar and hit with a blast of heat for that magnificent caramelized top, then back to the fridge to set until serving. No real skill is involved, just a bit of common sense and patience.  

This YouTube video shows how to use vanilla bean, illustrates how a wet towel provides a thermal break between the ramekins and the pan, and explains how to caramelize the sugar, but watch as this French chef has to work at removing the bubbles because he whips the egg yolks in order to dissolve the sugar. He heats the milk to infuse the vanilla bean flavor, but by adding the sugar at the same time, the sugar dissolves equally well into the milk without incorporating any additional air into the yolks. Which means my method produces no bubbles and no need to remove them, but I'm not French, what do I know? Make it his way, make it mine, let me know what you think. 

This recipe was adapted from eight servings requiring 12 egg yolks to twelve servings requiring 15, in order to match the same wonderful richness that the original version produced.  Where I have modified the recipe is in adding one cup of milk, not because I wanted to make the recipe lighter in calories, but because I felt the original eight cup recipe was just too fatty in mouth-feel. Adding the cup of milk extended this recipe an additional four servings and provided an overall balance to the 'not-too' sweet, magnificently creamy texture.

The only 'lesson learned' (experienced goof-ups) regarding this recipe come from not allowing the custard to cook to 175-degrees.  I suspect the deeper ramekins I use require a higher temperature than a more shallow dish because when pulled out at 170-degrees, they stay a bit soft in the middle (still absolutely delicious, just not perfection.) 

However, over an extravagant breakfast the next morning I realized that an overnight stay in the refrigerator does help the crème brûlée set up so that only an expert would be able to detect an under-cooked mishap 12 hours later (i.e. if you are worried about anything going wrong, make them the day ahead.) Crème brûlée can be made up to 2 days in advance, so it is ideal dessert for entertaining. Since this recipe makes twelve large servings, it will easily feed a crowd and if you are an extra-savvy planner, at least one will be left over for breakfast.

Crème Brûlée

1 quart heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
pinch of salt
2 vanilla beans, split in half
15 large egg yolks (preferably farm-raised)
1/3 cup turbinado sugar
  1. Heat oven to 300-degrees. Put 6-8 cups of water on to simmer (either in teapot or pan.)
  2. Heat half the heavy cream, the sugar, and the seeds scraped from the vanilla bean along with one half of the pod just to the boil. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 10-15 minutes. Remove vanilla pod. 
  3. Combine the remaining cream, milk, and salt with the heated cream in a medium bowl.
  4. Wisk the yolks just until smooth, add in cream mixture slowly, incorporating the liquid evenly and stirring until well combined. 
  5. Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a pitcher for easy pouring into the ramekins. 
  6. Lay a pan-sized towel in the bottom of a large roasting pan or baking dish that will hold all the ramekins (may require two pans) and add ramekins. Pour the cream into each of the ramekins to an even fill-line.
  7. Remove one ramekin in order to facilitate pouring in the hot water. Fill half-way up the sides of the ramekins and replace the last ramekin. If moving the heavy pan of hot water to the oven is a concern, place the pan on the oven rack first and then add the water.
  8. Baking time varies greatly upon the shape of the ramekin, shallow taking a shorter time, deeper, like the one pictured here taking longer. Bake for 25-45 minutes, checking internal temperatures until they register 175-Fahrenheit.
  9. Carefully remove pan from oven and move ramekins to a cooling rack. To facilitate faster cooling, pour out hot water and replace with crushed ice, allow to cool to room temperature. Cover ramekins in the pan, ice and all with plastic wrap (no need to press into the top of the crème brûlée) and place in the refrigerator to cool completely, 5-6 hours.
  10. Remove from refrigerator,  uncover ramekins and evenly sprinkle with 1-1 1/2 teaspoon sugar (more if ramekins have larger surface area) and use torch to caramelize sugar. Place back into the refrigerator uncovered for up to 2 hours and serve. 

  11. A longer stay in the refrigerator after caramelization may jeopardize the desirable crack to the sugar, but they will hold a crunch overnight, maybe longer, but I've never had crème brûlée last longer than one night in the fridge. Enjoy!


  1. I have tried this, at first the idea of that many eggs in a dish freaked me out, but it was so tasty! The crunchy top was amazing! Yum!

  2. If you are into the chemistry of custard, this is a great food geek post about temperatures and other interesting facts: