Crème brûlée is a rich, vanilla-based custard topped with a thin layer of caramelized sugar - which shatters satisfyingly 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. Although France, England, and Spain each claim that they created the first version of this decadent dessert, 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.
Preparation time 30 minutes (plus refrigeration) Bake time 35-40 minutes Makes 4 servings
480 grams (2 cups) heavy cream
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract*
5 egg yolks, at room temperature
67 grams (⅓ cup) sugar
Sugar for finishing (about 1 teaspoon per crème brûlée)
* Instead of vanilla extract, you can use 1 vanilla bean (seeds and pod). If using the bean, add to the cream and salt (step 3) and cook over low heat. Then discard the bean and continue with the rest of the recipe as written. I have made crème brûlée with vanilla extract and with a vanilla bean and both versions are delicious.
Preheat the oven to 150C (300F). Position the rack in the center of the oven. Place a baking dish large enough to hold 4 ramekins on a baking sheet. Place the 4 ramekins (size: 170 grams/6 ounces) in the baking dish. Set aside.
Measure the ingredients.
Combine the cream and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook over low heat until hot. Remove from the heat and let sit for a few minutes. Add the vanilla extract now. (If using a vanilla bean, skip the extract. See note above.)
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 continuously to prevent curdling and to ensure that the mixture is thoroughly combined. (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. 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 the water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins, making sure that the water does not drip into the custard/ramekins. 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 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. Be sure to check the custards every 10 minutes to prevent overcooking or the custard will curdle and be unpalatable. If the water starts to boil, lower the oven temperature.
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 each ramekin 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. Let me add that I have never had success using an oven's broiler and highly recommend the torch method!]
Serve immediately and at the latest, within two hours of caramelizing the top or it will get soggy and the caramel top will liquify.