Crème brûlée and crème caramel — the two are easily confused. Especially if you take the best part of crème caramel, the caramel, and infuse it in your crème brûlée. Just to set the record straight, crème caramel is the light custard that’s served inverted onto a plate, caramel base up, with the golden syrup pooling dramatically at the base.
Crème brûlée is crème caramel’s richer cousin, made with cream rather than milk. It’s dusted with sugar and torched, or brûléed, with sugar to create its distinctive glass-like topping. The best part of crème brûlée is you can make it days in advance and there’s no fancy plating to worry about. Simply take them out of the fridge and allow each guest the pleasure of dusting their custard with sugar and torching it. Children and tispy guests excluded.
One of my favourite kitchen tools is a push-button starter for my burly blow torch, given to me by a student, an electrician. It accompanies my crème brûlée to the table no matter how fancy the occasion. The custard is adapted from Julia Child’s crème brûlée recipe, a modified creme anglaise, found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Originally published in EAT Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2012 issue.
■ 3 cups heavy cream
■ 1 fresh vanilla pod
■ 1/2 cup white sugar, plus additional sugar for torching
■ 8 large egg yolks
■ 10 ramekins
■ A baking dish large enough to house 10 ramekins
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Line a large baking dish with small dish-towels or non-stick drawer liners. This helps insulate and hold the ramekins in place while you transport them to and from the oven.
Pour the cream into a saucepan.
Split the vanilla pod in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Remove the tiny seeds from each side of the pod with the tip of the knife, and add them to the cream. (Do not discard the split halves of the vanilla pods. Instead, place them in a container with sugar and infuse with authentic flavour.)
Heat the cream and vanilla mixture until it just begins to boil. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a LARGE saucepan (trust me on this), add the sugar and just enough water to moisten the sugar. Cook the sugar on medium-high heat until it melts and turns a light amber color, approximately 7 to 10 minutes. Once the sugar starts changing colour you must be attentive – the sugar can turn into smoking black mess in a heartbeat.
Slowly stir the warm cream mixture into the hot, melted sugar. The melted sugar will bubble madly.In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with a small amount of the hot caramel cream. Add the rest of the cream in a slow stream, whisking until combined. Do not rush this process or you run the risk of scrambling the eggs.
Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a one-litre spouted container (pictured), for easy pouring.
Bring a kettle of water to a boil.
Place the ramekins on the lined baking dish and move to a counter space that is close to the stove. Pour the custard into the ramekins, filling close to the top. Add the boiling water to the baking dish, being careful not to pour water into the custard. The water should come half way up the sides of the ramekins. Poke a couple of holes into a sheet of tin foil or parchment and loosely cover the baking dish. Carefully transfer the baking dish into the oven.
Baking time will depend on the size of your ramekins and your oven’s temperament. Plan on about 25 minutes for small or shallow ramekins and about 45 minutes for larger containers. The custards should be removed from the oven when they’re barely set — with the centers ever-so-slightly wobbly. It’s best to check the custards after 20 minutes to gauge the timing.
Refrigerate the custards until completely cool, at least three hours. (They can also be refrigerated up to three days in advance).
Just before serving, generously dust each custard with white sugar. Tilt the ramekin from side to side to disperse the sugar. Using the blowtorch, carefully burn (brûlée) the sugar with the flame until the top of each custard is nicely browned.
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