Crème brûlée is simply one of the sexiest recipes going. You know that tap-tap moment, when the caramelized crust shatters, and you dip into the creamy custard below? Heaven. The rustic burnt topping makes each bite different and more delicious than the last. I confess, though, that I find classic crème brûlée a little fussy. I do make it and love it (see our basic crème brûlée recipe here), but when I was working on my forthcoming book about pudding, Bakeless Sweets, I wondered whether there was an easier way. Could I make crème brûlée without the oven and water bath?
Was it possible to make a no-bake crème brûlée? The answer was yes, and it turned out so easy and delicious I switched to this method completely. It's fast and best of all, doesn't require the oven — a very nice thing on Thanksgiving and other big holidays when oven time is at a premium.
So here, for any last-minute dessert desires, is an adaptation of this no-bake crème brûlée, with pumpkin, spices, and a crackling top of burnt sugar.
A few words about this recipe. The beauty of this crème brûlée, as opposed to a more traditional version, which is baked in a water bath in the oven, is that it doesn't bake at all but instead is thickened with cornstarch and a lot of egg yolks. The final result stands up on its own as a very rich, very thick pudding that will hold up under that flamed topping without dissolving into a puddle.
In my mind, classic crème brûlée is utterly smooth, like the most silky and luscious custard you can imagine. This particular recipe, because of the addition of cornstarch and pumpkin puree, is a little rougher and more rustic. It's still thick and smooth, with all the creaminess you could want. But it has just a little more texture. (If you want a smoother mouthfeel, you can run the hot custard through a fine mesh strainer before refrigerating.)
I love how this tastes — I don't sweeten the custard too much, so it balances the darkly caramelized sugar topping. That smoky, burnt note on top complements the rich, spicy pumpkin custard below. And best of all, you can make it ahead (it only takes 15 minutes to throw together) and leave in the fridge until you're ready for dessert. No oven required!
No-Bake Pumpkin Crème Brûlée
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups cream
8 large egg yolks
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 cup whole milk
7 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (OR 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves)
1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Fine sugar, for brûléeing
Mix the cornstarch and salt in a 1-quart mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the cream, making sure there are no lumps. Whisk in the egg yolks. It is important that this mixture is as smooth as you can make it. (If you want to be really sure that the mixture is smooth, reach into the bowl and gently rub out any lumps between your fingers.)
Heat a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat and add the pumpkin with the spices. Fry them together, stirring it for about 1 minute or until fragrant or hot. Whisk in the milk with the brown sugar. Warm over medium heat until bubbles form around the edge and the entire surface of the mixture begins to quiver. Turn off the heat.
Slowly pour about half of the pumpkin and milk mixture into the cornstarch and egg yolk slurry. Whisk vigorously to combine. These should come together smoothly, with no lumps. If you see any lumps, add a little more milk and whisk them out.
Turn the heat back on to medium. Pour the mixture slowly back into the pan, while whisking, and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. Whisk continuously and vigorously, working all the angles of the pot, and scraping the bottom. Bring the custard to a boil, with large bubbles that slowly pop up to the surface, which will take between 2 and 5 minutes. Boil, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes. (Your arm will probably start to ache — this is normal!) After the pudding has simmered for 2 minutes, turn off the heat.
Whisk in the vanilla extract. Divide evenly among 8 ramekins, or spread in a pretty dish (it should hold at least 1 1/2 quarts). (If an extra-smooth texture is desired, pass the custard through a fine mesh strainer before spreading in the dishes.)
Do not cover the custards; you want to allow a thin, dry skin to form on top of the pudding. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
When ready to brûlée the pudding, lightly sprinkle the surface of each pudding with an even layer of sugar. Shake the ramekins from side to side to even out the layer. Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar. I like to add a second layer of sugar after the first one has hardened. This gives a better "snap" and a more definitive caramelized taste. Let the finished puddings sit at least 5 minutes before serving so the sugar layer can cool and harden.
Maple Variation: To do a maple brûlée, sprinkle the pudding with fine maple sugar and torch it. It won't get as hard as a classic sugar topping, so finish with a second layer of white sugar, torched until melted.
(Image: Faith Durand)