Creme Brulée is the officially sanctioned birthday dessert of my grandmother (aka Mommaw). She discovered it when she was in her early 80s, along with Titans football, French bulldogs, William Shatner and profanity. Our portions come in dainty little ramekins; hers is served up in a large gratin dish. The morning after her birthday, she has Creme Brulée for breakfast. Probably with slab bacon.
If you’ve never tried Créme Brulée, literally “burnt cream,” it’s a very rich, cold vanilla custard topped with a layer of caramelized sugar. The entire experience of this dessert is all about the moment you break through that brittle shell and taste the first spoonful of creamy custard and crackly sugar crust. That experience also dupes people into thinking they couldn’t possibly make this dessert at home, but you probably have the ingredients: heavy cream, whole milk, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla. For the restaurant price of this dessert, you could make many, many ramekins of Creme Brulée at home.
So, what scares people away from making their own? The tempering and the torch.
You temper eggs by slowly adding a hot mixture to them, raising their temperature without curdling the eggs. Think about how you approach a hot bath: first, you dip a toe in, then your whole foot, then the other foot, slowly letting your skin acclimate to the hot water. Same goes for the egg mixture. First, you add about one-fourth of the hot milk and cream to the eggs and whisk. Then slowly pour in the rest of the hot mixture, whisking the entire time.
As for the torch, it’s not a requirement. You could always set your pan of custard in a roasting pan filled with ice cubes and run it under the broiler. But you’ll have much more control using a torch. Most have a safety lock, and once you slide it into the “off” position, you’ll find that operating the torch isn’t any more complicated than using the nozzle on a garden hose or firing a water gun. Use small circular motions as you heat the sugar. I have more luck with granulated sugar, but you can definitely use brown.
Once you master tempering and the torch, you’ll be amazed at how easy (and inexpensive) it is to make Creme Brulée at home. It’s a perfect dessert for entertaining, since you can make the individual custards hours (if not days) ahead of time and caramelize the sugar just before serving. I understand that it also makes an excellent breakfast, but Mommaw isn’t sharing.
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking: From My Home to Yours”
Makes 6 servings
- 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- About 6 tablespoons sugar or sifted light brown sugar, for topping
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Put the six baking dishes (gratin dishes or ramekins) on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat.
- Bring the cream and milk just to a boil.
- In a 1- or 2-quart glass measuring cup or in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla together until well blended but not airy. Still whisking, drizzle in about one quarter of the hot liquid to temper the yolks. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remainder of the cream and milk. Strain the custard into the baking dishes.
- Bake the custards for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the center are set. Lift the dishes onto a cooling rack, and let the custards cool until they reach room temperature.
- Cover each custard with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
- To Caramelize the Sugar: Sprinkle the top of each custard with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Brown the sugar with a blowtorch until it bubbles and colors.