By Vida Gustafson
This dessert is just about as simple as it gets, but it’s one of those that will have you looking like an absolute wizard in the kitchen. You have the lightest of custards, barely set, not eggy or too sweet, topped with a crispy thin shell of dark, nutty, caramelized sugar. I think it is the perfect ending to a heavy holiday meal. You don’t need any fancy ingredients or gadgets, like a blowtorch, either. I’ve been caramelizing my crème brûlées at home under my broiler for years. While a torch is nice, it’s not essential.
- 1 ½ C cream
- 1 C half & half (or use whole milk in a pinch)
- 5 egg yolks
- 5 tbsp sugar
- 1 whole vanilla pod (or 2 tsp vanilla extract)
- 5-6 tsp turbinado sugar (or regular crystalized sugar)
Gather together 5 standard size (4.5 oz) oven-proof ramekins, a large sieve/fine mesh strainer and a small baking sheet or dish that can hold at least 1 inch of water and all the ramekins. Separate the yolks from the whites from 5 large eggs. Save those whites for meringues or omelets. Whisk the yolks with the 5 tablespoons of sugar until the sugar dissolves and set aside. Preheat oven to 350º F.
Cut open and scrape the seeds from one vanilla pod, put the pod and the seeds in a small saucepan. Add milk and cream. Set over medium heat and gently stir so that no skin forms. Heat until you see small bubbles releasing on the edge of the liquid, but do not bring to boil. Once the cream is piping hot, but not boiling, pour into the egg yolks. Starting very slowly and whisking gently and constantly. Once everything is combined, pour mixture through a fine mesh strainer or sieve to catch the vanilla pod and any solid bits.
Pour into 5 x 4 ½ oz ramekins or into a shallow baking dish (if making a single large crème brûlée). Set individual ramekins inside a larger shallow vessel and pour boiling water around them at least 1 inch deep. Be careful not to spill any water in the custard, it will not set if you do. Cook individual crème brûlées for 35 minutes and large crème brûlée for 50-60 minutes, until they are set but still a little jiggly.
Cool them for 10 minutes or so, before setting them in the fridge to cool completely, for at least an hour.
To brûlée in the oven, sprinkle a teaspoon or so of sugar evenly over the top of each and set under a high broiler. After 1 minute you may feel like nothing is happening, but this is just about when things start going really quickly and you end up with a burnt mess. Watch carefully for the sugar to start melting, bubbling and changing color. You’re looking for a light golden brown, that will darken in seconds. Most of these will be done in under 3 minutes, make sure to keep a very close eye. I usually stand right there with the oven door cracked open. If using a blowtorch, keep it about an inch away from the surface until the sugar starts to bubble and turn to a rich caramel color. Keep the torch moving, once the sugar colors it can burn very quickly.
Don’t despair if some spots get a little dark. The robust bitter overtones are the highlight of the dish, it is called “burnt cream” after all!
Let cool completely and enjoy!