As French as crème brûlée sounds (and it is a French name), the French cannot claim it as their own. During the Middle Ages, England and Spain loved their delicate, silken, rich custards and also made a similar dessert, and the French were right there with them when it came to worshiping custards. Crème brûlée means “burnt cream,” and whoever thought to caramelize the top of this soothing dessert probably deserves all the kudos for this timeless and classic treat.
The French version bakes the custard in a pan of water and then chills it before sprinkling the top with sugar, which then gets caramelized with a kitchen blow torch and eaten right away. This creates a delectable difference between the smooth velvet of the cold custard and the crunchiness of the sweet, hot topping. The uncommon way of creating this dessert is what gives it such an unusual flavor. The cream may be made days in advance, and the caramelizing of the top should be done right before serving.
Traditional crème brûlée uses nothing more than cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Low and slow cooking will result in the silken texture and prevent curdling. Two methods can achieve the smooth texture: a water bath in the oven or a double boiler on top of the stove.
You can keep it plain, or you can flavor crème brûlée in a number of different ways. The custard goes well with orange or lemon zest added. Vanilla extract is always a good fallback, and fruit such as raspberries or blueberries does the rich custard a lot of justice. For those who are more adventurous, try flavoring the cream with a tablespoon or two of Grand Marnier, Amaretto or Kahlua. Before adding the sugar topping, grate some chocolate for pizazz and a great “wow” factor.
A kitchen blow torch is used to crisp the sugar topping on the custard, but placing your crème brûlée on a baking sheet under the broiler will have the same effect of forming a crust and caramelizing the sugar. However, if you’re looking for drama, add a little liquor to the topping, which will give you the fire presentation like your favorite restaurant.
National Crème brûlée Day is Wednesday, July 27. Here is a classic recipe to help you celebrate:
- Using a double boiler, bring 2 cups (1 pint) of heavy cream to a gentle simmer.
- In a large bowl, take 8 egg yolks and beat well (optional: add 1/3 cup sugar, beaten into the egg yolks until sugar is dissolved)
- Add 1 tsp vanilla
- Remove the cream from the heat, and pour it in a slow stream while whisking into the above egg mixture.
- Beat constantly. Return the cream to the heat. Stir and cook it over a low flame (simmer) until it is nearly boiling, or stir and cook it until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon in a double boiler (simmer). Place the cream into a large, clean bowl. Chill it for 6 hours. The custard will thicken as it cools. When ready to serve, fill individual ramekins or custard cups with the chilled custard.
- Cover the cream with brown, white or maple sugar (about 2 tsp).
- Place it under a broiler (keep the oven door open) to form a crust and to caramelize the sugar. The custards should be no more than five inches away from the heat source. If necessary, an inverted roasting pan can be used to elevate the custards and position them closer to the heat. Place custards on a baking sheet or jellyroll pan for easier handling. The sugar will melt in as little as two minutes, so watch carefully.
- OR use a kitchen butane blow torch for caramelizing the tops of custards. It offers the best control and makes the crust look like glass. The flame is adjustable and melts the sugar quickly so that the custard beneath stays cool.