A few desserts always tend to intimidate cooks. Commonly these desserts include painstakingly long recipes, or special attention to detail and measurements. One of these intimidating desserts is undoubtedly creme brûlée. A classic French dessert, containing a delicately rich custard and hard caramelized layer on top.
It’s often considered a complex dessert with complicated cooking instructions. And I must say, creme brûlée certainly tastes complex, and many things can go wrong during the preparation indeed. One improper move and your custard can turn out too runny, or too eggy; disastrous! Creme brûlée is easily one of the most difficult desserts to achieve perfectly.
Most people are under the impression that creme brûlée is a classic French dessert. Yet France, England, and Spain all claim to be where creme brûlée originated. The first time creme brûlée appeared in a cook book was in 1691, in Francois Massialot’s Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeoise. Francois Massialot was a chef at the famous Palace of Versailles in Versailles, France. The original version was as an egg custard with milk, and burnt sugar on top- very similar to today’s modern taste.
Alternatively, Trinity College in Cambridge, England claims to be responsible for creating creme brûlée as one authority claims it was first served in 1630 which would predate France. Another name for creme brûlée is Trinity cream, or burnt cream.
Yet another claim by Catalans states that Crema Catalana, or Crema de Sant Josep, named after the husband of the Virgin Mary, was the original creme brûlée. In the Catalans’ version, the custard was often flavored with cinnamon, lemon, or orange zest. In Spain, St Joseph’s day is celebrated on March 19th and the traditional dessert Crema Catalana is served in celebration. This original creme brûlée is claimed to have been invented in the 18th century.
No matter the true origin of creme brûlée, it remains one of the most delectable desserts on the planet. With many variations in the flavor of the custard, vanilla continues to be the original flavor of the classic creme brûlée.
There are two methods used for the custard preparation. One method is the “hot” custard where you whisk sugar and egg yolks in a double broiler and then add the cream with vanilla, or simply tempering the hot vanilla cream with the yolks and sugar mixture. This method requires careful technique, for if you add the hot cream to the egg yolk and sugar mixture too quickly, you will scramble the egg yolk and that will be bad.
The second type of creme brûlée preparation is the “cold” custard method where you whisk sugar and egg yolks until you obtain a ribbon stage. The ribbon stage of any batter or mixture is when you lift the whisk over your mixture and the batter falls slowly forming a ribbon shape. This mixture is then combined with cold cream and poured into ramekins.
In my opinion, the best way to make creme brûlée, and the most successful way, is the “hot” method however I do not even use a double broiler. If you follow this recipe without deviation, I promise you that you will achieve the best tasting creme brûlée you’ve ever had with the most perfectly rich custard! And you’ll be surprised at how simple it will be!
What You Need:
6 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean
1 quart heavy cream
2.5 quart boiling water
Begin by preheating your oven to 325 degrees. In a saucepan, heat up heavy cream and vanilla extract. Remove from heat as soon as the vanilla heavy cream begins to boil. Set the heavy cream aside for 15 minutes.
If you are using a whole vanilla bean in place of the vanilla extract, all you need to do is split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, and scrape out the pulp. Place pulp and vanilla bean into the saucepan of heavy cream. Remove vanilla bean prior to the next step.
Whisk together 3/4 cup sugar with egg yolks until the consistency is light in color and smooth. Begin to add the vanilla cream to the egg yolk and sugar mixture a little bit at a time while whisking. Failure to incorporate the cream slowly will result in scrambled eggs and a ruined creme brûlée.
Now the custard is completed! Pour custard into 6 ramekins. It is important to note that the ramekins should not be too deep, as the traditional ramekins used in creme brûlée preparations are wide and shallow. When cooking the custard in ramekins that are too deep, the custard can overcook on the bottom and be undercooked in the center.
Place ramekins into a baking dish and pour boiling water into the baking dish taking extra care not to splash water into the custard. Getting water into the custard will result in a watery and soggy custard consistency.
Cook the creme brûlée in the oven for about 45 minutes. Once the timer is up, remove the ramekins from the baking dish and refrigerate for at least two hours, you may even leave them overnight. Give the creme brûlée time to reach room temperature before adding the remaining 1/4 cup or sugar to the top of each creme brûlée.
To ensure proper and even coverage of the sugar, swirl the ramekins around until the sugar covers the custard top entirely. Then use a torch to melt the sugar and create a hard caramel on top of each creme brûlée. If you don’t want to use a torch, simply broil at 500 degrees for about 2-3 minutes, but keep a watchful eye! It’s very easy for the creme brûlée to burn and the tops to turn black!
Traditional creme brûlée is served slightly chilled. In order for the sugar crust to remain hard do not refrigerate for longer than 30 minutes prior to serving. If the creme brûlée stays in the refrigerator for longer the sugar crust may begin to soften.
So you see, though the process of cooking creme brûlée requires careful attention to detail and multiple steps, once you’ve made it a few times it becomes a simple staple in your home. Classic creme brûlée only calls for four ingredients! Does it get any more simple than that?
Don’t be afraid to incorporate other flavors into creme brûlée if you’d like! One time I ordered lavender creme brûlée at a historic restaurant. The flavor was exquisite and different. To achieve a lavender flavor, simply add culinary dried lavender to your heavy cream while heating up. Add a gorgeous fresh sprig to the top when serving as a beautiful garnish.
Chocolate is a common flavor to add into creme brûlée, as is orange, espresso, and even raspberry lemon! When adding various flavors always remember to add just a touch when heating up the heavy cream. You may add lemon or orange zest to the top, or top with fresh berries and fruits. Bon appetit!