19 November 2009

Crème brûlée

The first time my wife and I went to a nice restaurant together, we ordered crème brûlée. This was a revelation. The crisp top. The creamy perfect custard. It was pure genius. We had only been dating a couple of months, but she decided that I needed to learn how to make this for her. So for my birthday, a few weeks later, she purchased a teeny little kitchen torch and some blue ramekins.

This was 1999, mind you. They will come to be known as "the dark ages". No cooking blogs. No quality websites. And paging through old cookbooks, I couldn't find a good recipe that actually described the process. The ratios, sure. But how do you execute? This was an area where I suffered a number of enormous failures. Stirred custards that curdled. Oven custards that simply weren't the right consistency (I just don't like the consistency that oven custards hit). Burned sugar. And one, where it all looked perfect. The custard looked just right. The sugar was melted properly. And when my guests put their spoons through the melted sugar with a loud *crunch*, we noticed the pooled liquid underneath the custard. Gah.

With all of the right information, a crème brûlée doesn't have to be difficult. It's barely even time-consuming. And done properly, it's one of the best desserts ever. (Indeed, I'm quite convinced that anyone who doesn't *love* crème brûlée, hasn't had it done properly). So this year, on November 19th (the birthday of my wife), I give her crème brûlée.

egg yolks

(This recipe is modified from Debbie Puente's Elegantly Easy Creme Brulee: & Other Custard Desserts):
8 egg yolks
⅓ C granulated white sugar
2 C heavy cream
1 tsp pure vanilla extract (or 1 whole vanilla bean, slit lengthwise)
¼ C turbinado sugar
Warm the eggs to room temperature. Separate the eggs and beat the yolks until light yellow and foamy.

egg yolks

Slice the vanilla bean end to end, and scoop out the guts of the vanilla bean into the cream.


Drop the vanilla bean into the cream. Meanwhile, using a double boiler over low heat, warm the cream and white sugar until 140°F. Stir constantly. I use a silicone spatula, to scrape the bottom of the pan and ensure that nothing burns.

Now you need to temper the egg yolks. Basically, you're getting them ready for cooking so that they don't curdle. Add the warm milk, very slowly, to the mixing egg yolk. It's particularly important that the addition is slow at the beginning. You're making a cream/egg yolk emulsion, so go slow.

tempering eggs

Fish out the vanilla bean, then pour the mixture back into the double boiler. Warm slowly, *stirring constantly* until the temperature reaches 175°F. Warming slowly prevents the mixture from curdling. Once the temperature reaches 175°F - Take off heat immediately! It may break (get grainy, lumpy, icky) at any point during the heating. If so - Take off heat immediately!


But what if it breaks? Disaster? No! This is the crème brûlée secret of secrets (shhhhh). If the custard breaks and curdles, you can save it. Run it through a blender, very quickly, blending just until smooth.

Pour the custard into some heat-proof ramekins, and wipe off any spillage (this'll be important when you start flaming the custard). Cover the ramekins and place in the fridge overnight.


The next day, crush some turbinado sugar in a mortar and pestle until it's of a relatively fine consistency. This makes it much easier to get an even melted sugar, without burning it. Dust a layer of sugar ontu the custard, and gently knock the ramekin to get an even distribution of sugar on the surface. Fire up your torch. I prefer to use the teeny little butane kitchen torches, though only for one reason. The bigger propane torches get too hot, and soften the custard underneath. The wimpy butane torches take longer to melt the sugar, but the custard stays perfect.

Brush the flames of your torch across the sugar until it melts evenly. Keep the torch and the ramekin moving. If you're not coordinated, you'll burn yourself, so be careful (speaking from experience, here). Some of the sugar will turn brown, you want that. That's delicious caramelization going on.

Creme brulee

While the sugar is still melted, you can toss in a couple raspberries or a mint leaf or both. Otherwise, serve plain, or beside some punitions. Ramekins keep in the fridge up to a week, so make extra.

The perfect dessert. Happy birthday, beautiful.


Hungry Dog said...

What a great, helpful post! I have never made creme brulee and have never felt I liked it very much--but perhaps you are right--I have never had a really good one. Hmm, perhaps I should give it a shot. Happy bday to your wife.

* said...

Thanks for the B-day creme brulee!
love, your wife

Anonymous said...

You have just saved me from a New Year's Eve creme brulee related disaster! Mix separated, I panicked. But then I googled 'Creme Brulee Disaster', clicked onto your site and put the mix through a blender. Worked a treat. Thank so much for the tip!!

Indirect Heat said...

My pleasure, glad to be of help!

Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of creme brulee and I have had it at many restaurants, I have always wondered why the good restaurants can make the custard so smooth and moist (while some others tasted like sweet scramble egg). I have been trying to make the perfect one and I have looked at numerous recipes. I have always been puzzled by one fact - nearly all of them tell you to put the mixture in the oven and bake it. I have tried it several times and it never gave me that perfect smooth texture I am looking for, so I have always questioned should I go against all recipes and not bake the mixture. Glad I've found your recipe, my first trial gave me a much closer product to the perfect one, I think with a bit of practice I will eventually get there. Blending the failing mixture was a brilliant tip btw.

Indirect Heat said...

Oven-baked custards are pretty different in texture. Not really sure why, but there it is. Stove-tops give a much nicer texture.

Good luck perfecting the technique, hope this recipe helps you out.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saving my creme brûlée. I had to make some to serve to 16 people. It curdled and I was devastated. Thanks to you, it turned out perfect.

Anonymous said...

I make crème brûlée often. Both kinds: Oven-baked are more like flan and similar to crème caramel texture. And puddingy or custardy ones are cooked in the double-boiler and are creamy like yours. When we visited Southern France near the Spanish border, we ate lots of crème catalane and that has the texture of your recipe... supper creamy! Over there, they infuse the cream with orange zest/vanilla pod/cinnamon stick and the secret ingredient: anise seeds. (Then strain it). The result is absolutely fantastic. You should try it! Thanks for your helpful tip on saving a curdled custard. It never happened to me until today. So I was glad to read about the blender tip.

Indirect Heat said...


My pleasure. I have had a lot of disasters with this dessert, and thought I would share my solutions. Crème brûlée should be in everyones' repertoire. Best wishes.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tip about saving it when curdled!

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