Last Sunday we celebrated my brother-in-law Brian's birthday with a special family meal. Usually these events are crowned with a cake, as you would expect. Kevin and Brian, the two sons-in-law, however, aren't generally big fans of cakes so we've had different desserts creeping into birthday celebrations over the years. This year Brian wanted crème brûlée. No problem!
When I was a kid and starting to take an interest in baking things outside of family recipes, I felt like crème brûlée was some kind of holy grail. I'd never had it, never seen it in real life, never been anywhere that served it (to my knowledge). But in my mind it seemed like the pinnacle of elegance. It also seemed impossible to achieve.
I couldn't seem to find a good recipe with workable proportions, I didn't have good equipment, and I really had no idea what I was doing.
Of course this was while the internet was on dial-up, way before Pinterest or food blogs. I didn't have access to the delightful kind of information saturation available on the net these days.
I dropped the notion for a long time until a friend of mine, Stephanie, loaned me Amelie in college. Having more buying power than my 13/14 year old self, I bought a kit with ramekins and a culinary torch and tried again. Stephanie and I ended up serving crème brûlée a few months later during a cute little "dinner party" we served our art friends over spring break.
Since then I've had the luck to visit Paris. That is a pretty interesting story (not a very glamorous weekend as it turned out) but one of the highlights was comparing crème brûlée notes in every restaurant where I ate. The recipe/proportions I use today taste just like what I experienced in France (see above).
In the end, crème brûlée isn't actually difficult to achieve and is made up of only four ingredients. It does require a few key pieces of equipment, however, and speaking from experience, they aren't dispensable:
- Ramekins: Glasses won't work well (I tried that once as a poor newlywed). I use 8 8-oz ramekins that I picked up from Walmart. Traditionally, you'd want to get something shallow so you end up with more surface area for the brûlée part. However, my ramekins can be used for lots of recipes (souffles, flan, pots de crème, etc) and I prefer equipment with more than one purpose.
- Nut Milk Bag: You could buy a $7 package of cheesecloth and use half of it for straining your custard mixture, then throw it out when you're done. Or you could buy one of these reusable, machine-washable nut milk bags and basically have cheesecloth for life.
- Jar Lifter: The crème brûlée bakes in a bain-marie, a hot water bath. Once done baking, they must be removed from that water bath while everything is still really hot! Do your fingers a big favor and get a pair of these tongs. They are the perfect thing for gently lifting the ramekins out of the water with no scalding (because hot water is going to instantly soak those oven mitts).
- Torch: I used one of those refillable butane powered culinary torches for years. They're okay but it's slow going and the igniters tend to break. Nowadays I just use the propane torch in my husband's garage. It's much more powerful, just as easy to use, cheaper by far, and has more than one use. Another note: some recipes will give you instructions for caramelizing the sugar crust with your broiler. In my experience, this has always turned into a fool's errand. Just use the torch.
- 10 large egg yolks
- 1 quart heavy whipping cream
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar plus more for topping
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Pour the cream into a medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Heat slowly until you reach a boil, stirring with a whisk (less frequently at the beginning, more frequently at the end) to prevent scalding.
2. In the meantime, place the sugar, salt, and egg yolks in a large batter bowl and whisk together. Fill a tea kettle with water and place on the stove, ready to begin heating on your most powerful burner.
3. Once the cream has boiled, remove it from the heat. Begin heating your tea kettle on high, place two racks in the middle of your oven, and preheat to 320 degrees. This next part is much easier with a second person but can certainly be preformed alone: Begin pouring, even dripping, a very small, steady stream of the hot cream into the eggs, whisking the eggs constantly to avoid curdling. Keep doing this until all the cream has been incorporated into the eggs. (If you're doing this alone, try using a small measuring cup to drip the cream instead of the whole saucepan: messier and slower but easier on your muscles.)
4. Place a strainer over a second large batter bowl and fit it with a double or triple layer of cheesecloth or a nut milk bag. Strain the custard through the lined strainer to remove any possibly curdled bits of egg as well as excess foam. Set the strainer aside. Using a large kitchen spoon, skim off any remaining foam from the surface of the custard.
5. Split 8 8-oz ramekins between two 9x13 glass casserole dishes. Pour the custard into the ramekins, filling them each about halfway full. Use a toothpick to burst any large bubbles on the surface of the custards. Place the first casserole dish with custards on the bottom of the two racks in the middle of your oven; pull out the rack part way so that you can begin pouring the boiling water from the tea kettle around the custards. Fill the casserole dish until the water is halfway up the height of the custards (this is called a bain-marie, a hot water bath, and helps the custards bake evenly and without drying). Repeat with the top rack and remaining custards. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the outside edges are set but the middles still jiggle when agitated (begin checking at 35 minutes; sometimes the top dish of custards will finish baking before the bottom dish--at least in my oven!). Remove from oven.
6. Let the custards cool in their bains-marie for 10 minutes before removing with a jar lifter. Using plastic wrap, carefully and completely cover the surface of each custard so that a film will not develop while chilling. Refrigerate overnight or at a minimum of two hours and a maximum of two days.
7. Once thoroughly chilled and right before serving, remove custards from refrigerator and carefully peel back and discard the plastic wrap. Using a spoon, sprinkle the custards with granulated sugar until the entire surface of each is completely covered, using perhaps one to two teaspoons per custard.
8. Light your torch. If using a propane torch, dial back the gas so that only a gentle flame is lit. This will give you more leeway while melting the sugar crust; you can always dial is back up if you feel the process is taking too long. Hold the flame at about 90 degrees a few inches from the surface of the first custard and keep it in motion over the whole surface so that you melt the sugar evenly. Keep going; you will begin to burn the sugar and the crust will bubble somewhat. Continue applying the flame and moving evenly over the whole sugar crust until golden brown with some slightly burnt spots (see progression above). Repeat with all custards and serve immediately. Enjoy cracking into the crust with a spoon!