Crème brûlée is a simple yet elegant dessert that you can prepare ahead of time. The creamy custard bakes in a water bath until smooth and spoonable. Top it with sugar and use a torch to create a crisp caramelized surface.
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The hallmark of a stunning crème brûlée is the thin layer of caramelized sugar crust, with an extraordinarily silky and creamy vanilla custard hidden beneath. Breaking through the crackling surface makes the dessert experience fun and exciting. Although it looks fancy, it’s straightforward to prepare!
Crème brûlée, also known as burnt cream, wouldn’t be the same without its hardened sugar topping. It only takes a few minutes to caramelize, and I have a few tricks to share so that you can heat the surface with or without a handheld torch. This recipe’s beauty is that you can make the custard a few days ahead of time for a quick and easy dessert.
Vanilla is a classic flavor used to enhance the sweet taste and aroma of the custard. I use whole vanilla bean pods, which contain incredibly flavorful seeds with concentrated vanillin flavor compounds. Split it down the middle and scrape out as much of the seeds as possible, about ⅛ teaspoon.
Don’t discard the pod! Add it to the cream to infuse the flavor into the egg base. The tiny specks add an attractive gourmet appearance too. If desired, you can substitute vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste, although the taste won’t be as strong. I like the latter because you still get speckles.
Scald the cream
To create a luxurious custard texture, I use heavy cream. It contains 36% fat, adding a silky mouthfeel without feeling too dense. The milk is scalded or heated to just below a simmer to 180ºF (82ºC). Don’t go any higher, or it will start getting clumpy.
This heat helps to infuse the flavor of the vanilla bean and dissolve the sugar in the egg mixture so it doesn’t taste granular. The vanilla bean is allowed to steep for at least 5 minutes off the heat, allowing the milk to cool slightly to prevent curdling.
Strain for a smoother consistency
Strain the cream through a fine-mesh sieve. This technique gives the ingredients another chance to become more homogeneous. It also removes any big particles or lumps remaining and helps to disperse the seeds. Alternatively, you can strain the cream after incorporating it with the tempered egg mixture.
Use egg yolks
The eggs thicken the custard as it bakes in the oven. To create a softer, pudding-like texture that doesn’t firm up, use only egg yolks. They contain 16% protein, which will coagulate just enough to thicken the consistency. The 34% of lipids will add a silky richness and shiny appearance.
Whisk granulated sugar into the egg yolks. This process helps to slow down coagulation when the warm cream is added to prevent curdling. However, don’t let the egg and sugar mixture sit too long. The sugar will absorb the water in the yolks and cause the uncooked egg proteins to clump together.
Temper the eggs
Egg yolks coagulate and set between 150 to 160ºF (66 to 71ºC). We want this to happen in the oven and not when making the custard base. To prevent the egg yolk’s proteins from hardening in the hot cream, it needs to be gradually heated by tempering. The scalded cream, which has slightly cooled down, is added in two smaller ⅓ cup additions.
Make sure to whisk to prevent hot spots in the egg mixture constantly. Adding the warm milk into a larger volume of colder eggs quickly reduces the temperature so it can smoothly incorporate. The liquid also dilutes the uncooked egg proteins, making it more challenging to solidify so that the remaining liquid can be safely added.
Portioning the custard
For this recipe, I use four 4-ounce sized ramekins, which can hold about ½ cup of custard. You can use different-sized containers such as shallow ramekins. However, the wider surface area makes them cook faster. This dessert is very decadent, so you don’t want to go much larger than 4- or 6-ounce ramekins.
Place the cups into a 9×13 metal baking pan. You don’t want to add hot water to glass cookware, or the quick expansion of heat could cause it to shatter. I like to stir the custard to disperse the vanilla seeds right before filling, then once poured into the ramekins to reduce settling.
Bake using a bain marie
A classic crème brulee recipe calls for the custard to cook using a bain-marie, also called a hot water bath. This method prevents the custard from overcooking the edges and turning rubbery while the center is gradually setting.
Make sure that the ramekins don’t touch the sides of the pan or each other. Fill the baking dish with boiling water to reach halfway up the ramekins’ sides, then bake at 325ºF (163ºC) for about 30 to 40 mins.
Checking for doneness
The most accurate is to insert an instant-read thermometer in the center. Once it reaches between 175 to 178ºF (79 to 81ºC) it’s done. Otherwise, gently shake the ramekin. There should be a very slight wiggle in the center. The custard will be set on the edges but not feel firm and bounce back.
Make sure to let them cool to room temperature to allow for carryover cooking, and prevent steaming and condensation when placed in the refrigerator. You need at least 3 hours of chilling before serving for the best consistency.
Granulated sugar spreads easily over the surface and browns the crust nicely. One teaspoon is just the right amount for a delicate crunch, although you might need more for a larger surface area. You don’t want any exposed custard spots, or the torch will melt them.
Alternatively, Demerara and Turbinado sugars are also popular choices. They’re coarse and dry brown sugars but a bit harder to find at the grocery store.
Caramelizing the sugar
Before torching, use paper towels to dry the surface of any excess moisture from storing in the refrigerator. Extra water will prevent the sugar from hardening. Evenly spread the sugar on top, then use a handheld torch to heat. Start at about 3 to 4-inches away, using a circular motion.
The torch is the best method for caramelizing, giving the most control, and even browning. The sugar will harden as it cools down at room temperature in about 5 minutes. Serve it shortly after, or chill for 5 minutes so that the custard beneath can cool down.
Caramelizing without a torch
Using the oven broiler is another option, allowing multiple custards to brown at one time. However, the color change can be uneven and takes more monitoring time. It also heats the custard, losing the cool contrast. I would chill them for about 15 to 30 minutes before serving.
You can also heat the bottom of a spoon over a hot stovetop flame for about 5 minutes, then touch it to the sugar. You’ll see the sugar steam as the moisture evaporates. It’s a neat trick, but use a spoon you don’t care about. This method does work, but not very evenly, and it does take a long time to heat several custards.
Other flavor options
- Try adding instant espresso or coffee, steep come chai or earl grey tea, or whisk in some matcha green tea powder with the scalding milk for a caffeinated version.
- Add cocoa powder or Nutella for a chocolaty taste.
- Citrus like lemon, orange, or key lime juice for a more tart flavor.
- Add some lavender or anise extract.
- Liqueurs like Irish Cream, Grand Marnier, of Kalua add a nice boozy note.
The benefits of a hot water bath
A bain marie is a cooking technique in which a container holding hot water is used to slowly and gently cook items that are placed in it. Since water cannot get hotter than 212ºF (100ºC), it allows for steady and gentle cooking. This is the ideal environment for baking the crème brûlée custards, reducing the risk of overcooking the outer edges, and becoming dense and firm.
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- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 ¾ cups heavy cream
- 5 large egg yolks, wait to separate
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 4 cups water
- 4 teaspoons granulated sugar, for topping
- Cut the vanilla bean pod in half lengthwise. Run the back a paring knife along the inside to scrape out the seeds.
- Set the oven rack to the middle position. Preheat the oven to 325ºF (163ºC).
- In a medium saucepan, add the heavy cream, vanilla bean seeds, and the pod. Heat on medium-low until the mixture reaches 180ºF (82ºC), about 10 to 12 minutes. Stir occasionally and make sure not to boil. Remove from the heat and allow the vanilla bean to infuse, approximately 5 minutes.
- Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites. In a medium bowl, add the egg yolks and sugar, gently whisk to incorporate.
- Set a fine-mesh sieve over a medium bowl. Slowly pour the cream through, scrape the bottom of the sieve against the edge of the bowl to incorporate any vanilla seeds.
- Gradually add 1/3 cup of cream mixture into the egg mixture while whisking slowly to incorporate. Repeat with another 1/3 cup. Add the remaining cream into the egg mixture, making sure to scrape any vanilla seeds left in the bowl.
- In a medium saucepan or kettle, add the water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover to keep hot. This will be used to make the water bath.
- Place four (4-ounce) ramekins inside a 9X13-inch metal pan. Slowly stir the egg mixture before adding. Fill each ramekin with ½ cup custard, or until almost full. Gently stir each one to distribute any vanilla seeds that may have sunk to the bottom. Pop any bubbles on the surface.
- Pour enough of the boiling water into the baking dish to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Be careful not to pour any water into the cups.
- Bake until the crème brulee sets, but still has a slight wiggle in the center, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. After 30 minutes, open the oven and gently tap the sides of the ramekins to check for doness. Bake longer as needed, checking every 5 minutes. The temperature should be between 175 to 178ºF (79 to 81ºC) in the center.
- Use an oven mitt to carefully remove each ramekin from the pan and transfer it to a wire rack. Let them cool to room temperature, about 45 to 60 minutes. Individually wrap each ramekin with plastic and place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours to set the custard, or refrigerate for up to 3 days.
- When ready to serve, remove the crème brulee's from the refrigerator. Gently blot any moisture on the surface with a paper towel. Evenly sprinkle 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar over the top of each ramekin. Hold at a slight angle, and gently tap the side so the sugar evenly covers the surface.
- Using a culinary torch, ignite and hold it 3 to 4 inches from the ramekin. Start along the edges, moving in small circles, until you reach the middle of the custard. Continue this movement until the surface is browned and caramelized, being careful not to overburn the sugar. Repeat with each ramekin.
- Once caramelized, let the sugar cool for five minutes at room temperature to harden. Alternatively, refrigerate for 5 minutes to cool the warmed custard beneath. The custards can be chilled uncovered for up to 1 hour and still have a hard crust. If desired, the surface can be torched for a few seconds to make the surface crisper.
- Vanilla Bean Substitutes: 2 teaspoons (10 ml) of vanilla extract or paste
- Straining: For an even smoother texture, strain the egg mixture before adding it to the ramekins. Skim the surface of any film or bubbles.
- Storing: Wrap baked custards in plastic and store in a resealable plastic bag for up to 3 days.
- Freezing: Cool the custard to room temperature, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and place in a resealable bag. Freeze for up to one month. To thaw, leave it in the fridge overnight. Once thawed, add the sugar and caramelize the topping.
- Caramelizing in the Broiler: Set the oven rack about 6 inches away from the upper heating element. The creme brulee will be about 4-inches away. Place the ramekins on a sheet pan, broil on high until the surface is golden brown, about 4 to 6 minutes. Check every minute, rotating the ramekins if needed for even caramelization.
- Caramelizing with a Spoon: Place a stainless steel spoon (that you don’t mind changing color) over the flame of a gas stove set on high. Let it heat for about 5 to 6 minutes. Be careful! Only touch the handle with your fingers. Press the bottom of the spoon onto the sugar. Slowly drag it in a circular motion until the surface is golden brown. Carefully wash off any residual sugar and repeat with the remaining custards.
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