Burning Cream

Today’s post is all about Creme Brûlée. That wonderful custard with a crunchy sugar crust that looks really fancy but is actually relatively easy to create. Unlike, say, a soufflé.

I have loved creme brûlée ever since I was little. From the moment you break the shell with a spoon to that last bite of custard at the end, it is an almost perfect dessert. Almost as perfect as chocolate covered strawberries which are the perfect dessert. But I digress.

We Feastly‘d again this past Sunday and the focus of the meal was Charleston. We had an early New Years Brunch, 7 people total, complete with mimosas, cheddar biscuits and ham, shrimp and grits, collards, and hoppin’ johns. Then to add that last, necessary, bit of cream to an already butter and cream laden meal we had the aforementioned baked custard for dessert. In the planning for this Feastly, I realized that it probably wasn’t going to be possible to caramelize the sugar on 7 creme brûlées and still be a decent host. So I had to do something a little bit different: manufacture the crusts. An option I discovered during my research on the perfect recipe from which to improvise.

The manufacturing technique goes something like this: create a disk of foil, lightly grease the disk with butter, pat a layer of a brown and white sugar mix on to the disk, flame on until all melted together perfectly, let sit until set and gently place on top of your custard. Or like so in the pictures:

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One thing you can’t see in the pictures that I highly recommend: caramelize your pralines (the honest-to-goodness technical term) with the foil on top of a metal surface. And for heaven’s sake… don’t try to pick them up right after torching them.

Side story: For the longest time, I have lusted after having a kitchen torch. It wasn’t so much because I was interested in making pralines, or grilling thin cuts of meat without putting them on the stove. No, it was because I wanted a macho camping tool. That’s it. Because of this obviously juvenile reasoning – the wise women in my life: my mother, my sister, and my wife all convinced me it was a terrible idea. However, for Christmas this year (and because we had already started planing this Feastly in early December) Laura got me a kitchen torch. This kitchen torch which doubles as a silver solder:

A new favorite tool.

A new favorite tool.

So, when I made these custards I went all out, tool wise. This is very unusual for me. Ordinarily I use one knife, a cutting board, and a pot to make a meal that lasts us for a few days. Not this time – a make-shift double boiler, a water bath for the custard dishes to sit in while they were baking, the ramekins themselves, several bowls (the one for the double boiler, the one for the yolks [oh so many yolks], and one for the whites) and, finally, a whisk.

This recipe is just eggs, cream, vanilla, and sugar. That’s it. It’s the process of turning those ingredients into dessert that can trip you up. So, since I had never actually made Creme Brûlée before I started this project and because I had always been told that it can be finicky I made two batches: a test batch with the recipe I ended up working up (a combination of Cook Everything’s and the Joy of Cooking’s) and the second batch that we ended up serving at brunch. The first batch worked ok but the custards didn’t set all the way through. This was an easily solved problem of having not baked the things long enough and then not letting them setup in the fridge over night. Two important steps those. Another issue, I believe without much evidence, is that using ultra-pasteurized heavy cream messes with the proteins in the cream. My only reason for believing this? Using fresh pasteurized cream, instead, in the second batch made for a much better tasting custard.

Enough blabbing. Here’s the recipe. We’ll finish up below with some more pictures including an example of the finished product. I’m going to assume here that you’re making pralines instead of caramelizing the sugar directly on top of the custard. Comment below if you would like advice about how to do the second.

Creme Brûlée

6 servings

  • 2 ½ cups cream
  • 6 egg yolks
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ cup white sugar plus another ¼ cup for the pralines
  • ¾ of a cup of brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • about 2 tablespoons of butter
  1. Preheat the oven to 300ºF and start a full kettle on to boil.
  2. Put the cream and vanilla into a double boiler over medium heat until it just begins to steam – about 4-6 minutes.
  3. Whisk the yolks, salt, and ½ cup of white sugar until you have a smooth, pale yellow paste.
  4. Slowly add the hot cream to the eggs, stirring constantly.
  5. Pour egg-cream mix into 6 4-to-6 ounce ramekins. Gently place the ramekins into a casserole pan or deep baking pan (at least 2 inches deep). Carefully add hot water from the kettle to within an inch or so of the top of your ramekins. This is your water bath.
  6. Bake for 40 minutes or until mostly set. (The middle is still a little jiggly)
  7. Remove and let cool. Cover with plastic and refrigerate over night.
  8. Cut 6 foil disks such that they are large enough to completely cover the custard.
  9. Lightly grease each disk with butter.
  10. Combine the remaining sugar and gently pat the sugar mix onto the greased disks – for the mathematically inclined: I think 2mm is about the maximum thickness.
  11. Using a kitchen torch or your oven’s broiler, carefully caramelize the sugar on each disk being careful not to set the sugar on fire.
  12. If using the broiler, remove from the oven. Regardless, let the pralines sit for approximately 5 minutes before doing anything else with them.
  13. Gently peel the pralines off the foil disks.
  14. Immediately before you serve the Creme Brûlée, GENTLY place the disks on top of the custards.

Enjoy burning your cream. 

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