I love crème brûlée. I mean, I break my diet for this one every time.
Crème brûlée is one of those restaurant desserts that everyone loves and yet thinks it is impossible to make at home. Surely it requires cooking skills and techniques that home cooks don’t have. I mean, look at the name. All that French must mean that preparation has to be complicated, right? Nope!
Of course, it may depend on who you talk to. As with everything else, there are purists out there. I’ve read that many old school chefs say the custard should be painstakingly cooked on the stove top. More contemporary chefs do it in an oven, like I do. And I’m sure my recipe is even simpler than theirs.
Bottom line, this recipe makes a delicious crème brûlée, and it is simple and easy enough for anyone to make at home. What’s not to like?
That’s right, 5 ingredients. Many recipes call for a vanilla bean. I’m more of a savory than a sweet person, so I’ve never felt the need to keep vanilla beans in the house. Pure vanilla extract works just fine for me.
Crème brûlée is cooked in ramekins that are placed in a water bath. The technical term is bain marie (or banho maria, as we say in Portuguese). You can very easily use a sheet cake pan with some water, and place your ramekins in that. This recipe makes 8 servings so I use two of these sets.
I was drawn to these sets because the pan also makes for a handy little storage container for the ramekins so that I don’t have to stack ramekins up in my cabinet. They don’t fit into each other, so it is easy to knock a stack over. You can get this set in a lot of places, such as at this popular retailer.
If you want to use vanilla bean, this is where you would add the bean and the pulp. I add the cream, the extract and pinch of salt into a sauce pan and stir them to combine well. You want to heat this gently, not bring it to a rolling boil.
While the cream is being heated, separate the egg yolks. You need 8 of them.
Now, many people don’t like to make dishes that call just for the yolks or just for the whites because who wants to spoil the unused part of the egg? Well, trust me when I say that those egg whites can be whipped up into a froth, folded with cheese, ham (or turkey), onions, baby spinach, and anything else you like on your fluffy egg white omelette. Yummers!
…and whisk together just until fully blended.
Check the cream to see if it has heated enough. I’ve had the most success by removing it just as the cream starts to bubble along the edges of the pan.
Then you will want to temper the cream into the egg and sugar mixture.
Tempering just means that you add a hot ingredient to a cool one in small amounts. You have to temper the cream into the eggs because if you just pour it in, you’ll end up with scrambled, partially cooked egg yolks.
Drizzle in a bit and stir it in well, then a bit more and stir, and so on. By the time half of the cream is in, the temperatures are more equal so you can usually pour in the other half and finish mixing to combine.
You end up with a result that looks like this.
You might have a bit of foam on top from all of the stirring. Some recipes will tell you to skim it off because it will settle as a top layer in the ramekins, and the custards with more foam will get darker in the oven. Me? I leave them alone. I mean, we’re going to torch those babies and caramelize with sugar anyway, right? To me, the impact to taste is none, and negligible to the aesthetic and texture. So I don’t bother. If this outrages a chef somewhere, my apologies.
…here’s a tip…
I strain the mixture before filling the ramekins. I do it because sometimes I am not careful and add the hot cream too quickly, creating some egg yolk solids.
Crème brûlée should have a silky, creamy, smoothness in your mouth that contrasts with the thin glass-like crackle of the caramelized sugar on top. I don’t like seeing or feeling little solids in the custard. Straining is quick and easy, and well worth the effort.
…and here’s another tip…
I strain them into an easy-pour container. These ramekins are not very big, and you’d be surprised how easy it is to hit an edge and make a mess. A container with a spout really helps.
Then I fill the ramekins.
After I add the water to the bottom of the bain marie pan. I used to do it the other way around. But it is easy to splash water into the crème brûlée mixture. You really don’t want that. Of course, you could fill the ramekins, set them on the counter, fill the pan for the bain marie, then add the ramekins into the pan. But I’m lazy and like to cut steps.
You want to bake them until they set, but are still a little jiggly in the center. Jiggly is a technical term.
Place the ramekins on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
See the darker ones? Those are the ones that had a bit of foam at the top.
Cover each with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least two hours before serving. They have to be nice and chilly.
You will need one of these to brûlée your crème.
Why do I have two torches, you might ask? Well, because I misplaced my torch after a move and the world almost ended! I mean, when you have your heart set on serving crème brûlée to friends after dinner and you don’t have a torch, you go screaming to the nearest store to get a new one. Of course, the friends did not know what was on the dessert menu. But I did! And once my expectation had been set, nothing else would do. And shortly after, I found my first torch.
Well, as I’ve heard that Navy Seals say, one is none and two is one. Better safe than sorry. But you only need one, just in case I confused you with all that chatter.
Why not the broiler? Because the custard needs to be cool. In order to get a good glass-like brûlée in the broiler, you may end up heating the custard too. You don’t want that. No,no,no,no,no.
Be very careful with the torch flame. I always place a heavy, wood cutting board under the ramekins when I torch the tops so that I can protect my counter top. And obviously, keep all digits behind the torch.
So, so, so good! Give it a try. It is so worth it!
- 4 cups (1 quart) whipping cream
- 8 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or one vanilla bean with pulp)
- ¾ cup of sugar
- Pinch of salt
- More sugar for torching
- Preheat the oven to 350.
- Heat the whipping cream in a sauce pan with the vanilla and salt until just bubbling on the edges.
- While the cream is heating, mix the sugar and the egg yolks together in a large mixing bowl.
- Remove the cream from the stove when ready, and temper gently into the egg and sugar mixture.
- Strain the mixture (to remove any egg solids) into an easy-pour container.
- Pour the mixture into 8 ramekins and place in a bain marie pan.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes, until set with a little wiggle in the center.
- Place the ramekins on a cooling rack and allow to come to room temperature.
- Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.
- Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly over the custard in each ramekin.
- Using a butane torch, caramelize the sugar to a dark golden brown, careful not to burn. The top should look shiny and glass-like.
- Serve immediately.