Crème brûlée is a rich vanilla-infused custard topped with a thin layer of caramelized sugar, which shatters when cracked with a spoon. It is served cold, although the heat from the caramelizing process slightly warms the top of the custard leaving the center cool.
The origins of crème brûlée are debated, although it is considered a French dessert. It is similar to England’s Trinity cream and Spain’s crema catalana, with each country claiming they created the first version of this decadent dessert. However, custards made from eggs and cream were quite common in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards.
While its origins are a mystery, the revival of crème brûlée is attributed to Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque restaurant in New York in the 1980s.
Made of only five ingredients — cream, vanilla, salt, egg yolks and sugar — the result is a sophisticated dessert.
Here are some step-by-step instructions to aid you in making the dessert at home:
Measure the five ingredients. Combine the cream and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook over low heat until hot.
If you are using a vanilla bean, add the seeds and pod to the cream and salt to infuse. Remove the cream from the heat and let sit for a few minutes. Discard the vanilla bean now, if using. If using vanilla extract instead, add it now. I have made crème brûlée with vanilla extract and with a vanilla bean and while the result is a dessert that looks and tastes slightly differently, both versions are delicious.
Next , in a clean bowl, quickly whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is pale yellow and thick.
Gradually and gently whisk one-third of the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture in a steady but slow stream, making sure to stir continuously until well mixed and to prevent the egg from curdling.
Then pour the egg mixture into the remaining hot milk in the saucepan, whisking thoroughly to combine. This method of cooking is called tempering. If your eggs curdle, you will need to begin again.
Pour the custard through a chinois or sieve into a clean mixing bowl. This is an important step to discard any egg protein (or remnants of the vanilla pod if using).
Using a ladle, evenly divide the custard into the 4 ramekins (size: 170 grams/6 ounces). Place the ramekins in a baking dish and the dish on a baking sheet.
Skim off any foam on top of the custard with the ladle or a piece of paper towel to remove it. Getting rid of the foam is important so that the surface of the custard is smooth once baked.
Carefully pour lukewarm tap water into the baking dish until it is halfway up the sides of the ramekins, making sure that the water does not drip into the custard/ramekin. Cooking the custard in a water bath (or bain-marie) allows for a more uniform cooking process.
Place the baking sheet with the baking dish and ramekins into the pre-heated oven. Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until the centers are barely set — they will wobble slightly in the center when shaken. The custards will firm up as they chill.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and carefully take the ramekins out of the hot water using oven mitts. Place the ramekins on a wire rack to cool completely to room temperature. Then cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (or up to one day) before serving. The crème brûlée must be very cold when served.
When ready to serve, remove the custards from the refrigerator and take off the plastic wrap. Top each custard with about a teaspoon of sugar in a thin layer – do not use too much sugar or it will be difficult to melt it quickly and the crème will liquify under the heat.
Using a small propane torch, melt and caramelize the sugar, turning it into a mirror-like, golden brown top.
Alternatively, you can place the ramekins 2 inches from an oven’s broiler. Turn on the broiler and cook until the sugar melts and browns, a few minutes. You may need to put the crème brûlée back in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving to cool down again. A torch allows for more control of the heat and it more quickly caramelizes the top, not requiring the custard to be cooled again before serving. I have never had any success using an oven's broiler, in all honesty!
Serve immediately and at the latest, within two hours of caramelizing the top or it will get soggy.
Please see the recipe below for a summary of the detailed instructions.
Preparation time 30 minutes (plus refrigeration)
Bake time 35-40 minutes
Makes 4 servings