I've had crème brulee on my mind since last November when a middle school science teacher borrowed my kitchen torch to make pumpkin crème brulee with her students. I remember thinking at the time that if I ever had a science teacher who did that, well, who knows - I may have been a food scientist rather than a food writer.
Crème brulee's reputation as a complicated dessert is misleading. I think it's the French name, which literally means burnt cream, that ups its intimidation factor. The dessert is actually quite simple to make and never fails to make everyone go wild with desire.
Custard as smooth as silk, a concoction rich with eggs and cream, slightly sweet and flavored with exquisitely aromatic vanilla, is enough to make crème brulee irresistible. Add a glaze of deeply caramelized sugar that snaps when hit with the tip of a spoon, merging with the custard as it melts on the tongue and you wind up with a divine eating experience. The contrast of textures and flavors satisfies multiple taste desires.
It takes only five ingredients to produce Classic Crème Brulee. Keep in mind, though, that each ingredient must be of the finest quality, especially the vanilla. It must be pure vanilla. Despite the fact that vanilla is the second most expensive spice on earth next to saffron, a crème brulee is not the place to use imitation vanilla flavoring, as tempting as it is to save money.
Real vanilla comes from an orchid that is native to Mexico. Today, vanilla beans are grown in four main regions of the world, each producing vanilla beans with distinctive characteristics and attributes. Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, is the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world and the ensuing vanilla is known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. The term Bourbon applies to beans from the Island of Madagascar and surrounding islands collectively referred to as the Bourbon Islands. There is no connection with bourbon whisky, alcoholic spirits produced in Kentucky in the United States. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is considered to be the highest quality pure vanilla available, described as having a creamy, sweet, smooth and mellow flavor.
I like to use a vanilla bean, with its complex character, to infuse distinct flavor into the custard for crème brulee. Thousands of tiny seeds hide inside each vanilla bean, or pod, and look much like dark paste when they are scraped out. The aroma is intoxicating and the flavor they impart is incomparable as they float through the custard.
I never had a science teacher who made crème brulee in class, but I'm pretty sure there are chemical reactions that take place as the mixture of egg yolks, cream and sugar bake to velvety smooth custard. And sugar melting and caramelizing on each custard? Um, chemical reaction. Or, wait, would that be an endothermic reaction?
Oh, I'm so glad I don't have to be a scientist to make perfect and incredibly alluring Classic Crème Brulee.
The most difficult part of the whole process is waiting for the custard to chill, which finally results in an ecstatic reaction.
Classic Crème Brulee
3 cups heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean
6 yolks from large eggs
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons superfine sugar for topping
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter six 6-ounce ramekins. Place the ramekins in a baking pan at least 2 inches deep and large enough to hold all of them, such as a 9- x 13-inch cake pan.
Pour cream into a medium saucepan and begin warming over low heat. Add pinch of salt. Use a sharp paring knife to split vanilla bean in half by cutting through the length of it. Use the knife to scrape out the seeds. Add vanilla bean pod and the seeds to the heating cream. Bring just to a simmer and immediately remove from heat.
While cream is heating, whisk egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar together until mixture is thick and lemon-colored, about 2 to 3 minutes. Use a ladle to gradually add hot cream to yolk mixture, whisking constantly until all of the hot liquid has been incorporated.
Strain hot custard through a fine-mesh sieve to remove vanilla bean pod and any bits of cooked egg that may have formed. The custard will still be liquidy.
Ladle custard into prepared ramekins, dividing evenly. Use a glass measuring cup to pour hot tap water into the pan until it gets 3/4 of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Very carefully slide the pan of ramekins into the oven on a rack positioned in the middle of the oven. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes. The custard will jiggle in the middle when removed from the oven. It will firm up as it cools. Remove ramekins from water bath and cool completely. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 to 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
Just before serving, sprinkle each custard with 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar. Gently shake each ramekin back and forth to spread the sugar evenly over the top. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and place under the broiler as close to heat as possible. Watch closely as sugar caramelizes. It will take just a minute or two. Remove from oven when the sugar turns golden brown. The glaze will harden almost immediately. Serves 6.
Tips from the cook
--Superfine sugar is sometimes sold as caster sugar. To make your own, whirl some granulated sugar in a blender or food processor.
--I like to use my kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar topping. I sprinkle each custard with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the superfine sugar and caramelize it with the torch. Then I sprinkle each one with another 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar and repeat the torching. This creates a substantial sweet shield (without burning) that crackles each time a spoon dives into the creamy custard.
--Custards will keep in the refrigerator for 4 or 5 days. Just keep them tightly covered. Add the topping just before serving.
--One tablespoon of pure vanilla extract can be used instead of a vanilla bean. Vanilla extract must be added to the custard last, not heated with the cream as you would do when using a vanilla bean.