Are you cooking something sweet for Valentine's Day this weekend? We asked our readers on Twitter and Facebook if there was anything they hoped to attempt for the first time this Valentine's, and crème brûlée came up. Crème brûlée is such an astonishingly easy treat, and I was happy for the excuse to revisit it. Here's a look at how to make crème brûlée in your own kitchen — no torch or special equipment required, and you'll only need 5 or 6 ingredients to get that sweet, creamy custard with a shattering sugar crust. Crème brûlée is really one of the simplest desserts to make. But like French onion soup it seems to be a dessert that many people don't realize they can make at home. It's such a staple of restaurants — it must be finicky and difficult, yes? No. There's no stovetop stirring, no need for a mixer. There are no specialty ingredients or tools involved.
All you do is mix up a few egg yolks with cream (although half and half will do as well — the custard just won't be as dense) and a little sugar. Bake, then chill and broil with sugar on top.
Some cooks use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar on top of the custard. But why buy a gadget for this one use? OK, some of us like crème brûlée a lot, and maybe if you're making it every week it's worth it to buy a torch. But honestly, the oven broiler will do a fine job. I follow Alton Brown's advice of putting the ramekins in a cold oven, then turning on the broiler. This helps keep the custard cool while getting the top crisp.
An oven-broiled crème brûlée tends to be a little more rustic, spattered with with craters of burnt sugar, blackened around the edges, with piebald pale spots here and there. I do not mind this. In fact, I like my crème brûlée just this side of burnt; I think that such a sweet, rich custard needs the dark, nearly bitter burnt sugar to balance it out.
So here you are: Crème brûlée. Happy tap, tap, tapping!
What You Need
This will make 4 servings of crème brûlée.
1 vanilla bean OR 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 egg yolks from large eggs
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup fine white sugar
Four 6-ounce ramekins
1. Heat the oven to 275°F. If you are using a vanilla bean, split it down the center and scrape out its seeds into the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Whisk.
2. Add the confectioner's sugar and a pinch of salt, and whisk.
3. Add a drizzle of the cream and whisk it into the egg yolk mixture to lighten it, then add the rest of the cream and whisk.
4. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into another bowl. (If using vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, add it now, to the strained custard.)
5. Pour the custard into 4 to 6 ramekins or oven-safe bowls and place them in a larger baking dish. Fill the ramekins as close to the edge as you can; you do not want a lot of empty space between the surface of the custard and the top rim of the ramekin.
6. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven, and pour about 3 cups of boiling water into the baking dish around the ramekins.
The depth of the ramekins will control how long it takes for the custards to bake. When using very shallow dishes, with the custard less than 1 inch deep, bake for about 30 minutes. When the dishes are narrower and taller, with the custard about 2 inches deep, bake for at least 50 minutes, and up to 60.
How to know when the custard is done: The custard will be quite wobbly; it should jiggle from side to side when nudged. However, it should not be liquid in the center. It will be barely set, but not liquid. The custard will firm up considerably in the refrigerator, so take it out of the oven when it has set into that very-jiggly-not-liquid consistency.
Very, very carefully remove the pan from the oven, and remove the ramekins from the baking dish. Let them cool for about 5 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until ready to serve.
7. When ready to make the sugar crust, take the ramekins out of the refrigerator and dab their tops dry of any moisture or condensation.
8. Sprinkle a fine layer of sugar over their tops. The key here is for the sugar layer to be of even thickness. Sprinkle the sugar then shake them back and forth to distribute the sugar evenly. Tap out any excess sugar; you should be able to almost see the custard through the thin layer of sugar.
9. Move the top rack in your oven up as high as it will go. Place the ramekins in the oven on the top rack, and turn on the broiler. Broil for 5 to 10 minutes, rotating them frequently so that they broil evenly. Take them out when they are golden brown and bubbling.
Note: If you want you can put an upside-down pie pan in the oven to raise the custard up even closer to the broiler. This can help speed the broiling process.
10. It is traditional for crème brûlée to be served cold. If you like it cold, place the ramekins back in the refrigerator. They can be refrigerated for about 30 to 45 minutes before serving (no longer, otherwise the sugar crust may begin to soften). If, however, you like them lukewarm in the center, as I do, you may serve them after the sugar has set (about 5 minutes).
• Using a kitchen torch instead of a broiler? Here is an excellent tutorial for doing that well: Tip: Getting a Good Caramelized Top on Crème Brûlée
• A few more tips here (plus discussion of using rougher or darker sugars): Good Question: Help! How Do I Caramelize Sugar With a Kitchen Torch?
• Shaking up the flavors: Honey Pumpkin Crème Brûlée
• And getting even fancier: Chocolate Truffle Tart with Vanilla Crème Brulee
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(Images: Faith Durand)