Creme brulee combines a bland but very rich custard with some cloying variation on pure sugar.
Custard and sugar, by themselves, are boring, but creme brulee provides an irresistible textural contrast between silky custard and crunchy sugar. (The sugar is sprinkled on top of the custard and burnt to a crisp. The name literally means “burned cream.”)
The most challenging part of making creme brulee is putting the custard in the oven to bake. That’s because you must cook the custard in a water bath; surrounding the ramekins with hot water keeps the custard moist and prevents it from breaking into a lumpy, curdled mess.
Once steamed in the water bath, the custard will taste smooth and velvety but bland. It will also appear quite homely. The burned sugar layer takes care of both problems. Using the right amount of sugar is crucial. It should coat the entire surface of each custard – no patches of yellow should peek through – but it should not pile up on top of the custard.
Once burnt, the sugar should audibly crack when you hit it with a spoon; if there’s too little sugar, it won’t melt into a solid crust, but if there’s too much it’ll overwhelm the custard with its burnt flavor and adhere unpleasantly to your teeth. (Only granulated sugar should be used.)
As for technique, broiling in the oven is the most pragmatic option for most, though it gives you less control over the process than using a culinary blowtorch.
Vanilla is the only flavor traditionally added to creme brulee, and if you want, you can add a split vanilla bean to your saucepan of cream, steep it for 10 minutes, then discard the pod. I like vanilla extract just fine – but only when it’s supplemented with a glug of Grand Marnier.
For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link:
HEAT the oven to 300 degrees, and bring a kettle of water to a boil. Put four 8-ounce ramekins in a 9- by 13-inch pan.
PUT the cream in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat and cook until it begins to steam, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl and whisk until the mixture is pale yellow and silky, about 1 minute. Whisk in the Grand Marnier and vanilla.
GRADUALLY add the hot cream to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the custard mixture into the ramekins. Add enough boiling water to the 9- by 13-inch pan to come about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then cover the pan with foil and transfer it carefully to the oven. Bake until the custard no longer appears liquid in the center, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the pan and cool for at least 1 hour at room temperature, then cover each ramekin with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to a few days.
HEAT the broiler. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons sugar over the top of each custard and broil until the sugar is melted and deeply browned, 3 to 5 minutes. (Or, instead of broiling, you can caramelize the sugar with a culinary blowtorch.) Serve. Yield: