Crème brûlée sounds super fancy, somewhat snobbish, and seems like it should be difficult to make. But it isn’t too hard once you’ve given it a shot. Remember that its name literally means burnt cream. And if ‘burnt’ is in the name, then you really don’t need to be worried about messing it up, right?
I think it seems difficult because it is just not very similar to anything else a home cook might have made before. The custard and water bath are just different enough that it appears inaccessible. One of the closest things that you may have tried making before is pumpkin pie. It is also a custard but cooked in its crust instead of in a ramekin with a water bath.
The first one I had was on an anniversary dinner date with my wife at the restaurant Maggiano’s Little Italy. It was a pure vanilla custard with the signature crunchy top, sprinkled with a few fresh berries to pack a punch of flavor.
And I was in love. With my wife too, but the dessert was amazing.
Naturally I decided I must learn how to make it. So now for crème brûlée we’ll go into it step by step:
1. Make the Custard
The somewhat tricky part.
We start out by making a crème anglaise. Heating up the cream and vanilla on the stove is simple enough. The tricky part is tempering the eggs. High heat + eggs = scrambled eggs. And nobody wants sweet vanilla scrambled eggs. So we temper the egg mixture.
By tempering the eggs I mean slowly bringing them up in temperature. We will have the blended egg and sugar mixture to which we will add about a cup of the heated cream by slowly drizzling it in while furiously whisking it together. If you properly whisk with a slow drizzle, you will have gradually heated the eggs up without cooking them. And then you will remove the cream from the heat and whisk in your tempered egg mixture to make your crème anglaise.
We have a bit of insurance here because we end this step by straining it all through a fine-mesh strainer. So even if some small bits of egg decided they wanted to cook, they’ll get strained out along with the vanilla bean pod.
2. Start the Water Bath
The easy part.
One of the things that truly makes the custard cook properly is a water bath. Called a bain-marie, you can set it up by getting out a large 13″ x 9″ baking dish. Then get out the ramekins (the name of the little dishes used to cook crème brûlée) and space them evenly inside the baking dish. Turn your faucet to hot and use a mug, measuring cup, or whatever else you’d like to fill the baking dish with hot water so that the ramekins are surrounded by water 2/3 of the way up their sides.
The side-view photo shows you how the setup works. This helps heat the custard consistently and evenly as well as letting it steam up and keep the oven very moist. After the ramekins are in the baking dish, surrounded by water, you can pour the custard out evenly into the six containers. The easiest way to get an even amount is to fill all of them about halfway and then you can see how much is left to divide between the ramekins.
3. Cook Until Just Done
The second tricky part.
For me, the hardest part was learning when to take the custards out of the oven. I think I just never trusted that even though they were still kind of jiggly that they were indeed cooked. The sliding image above shows the poured custard before and after cooking in the oven.
We want the custard to be just set in the center. So if you shake the custards, they will be just set in the center with a fair amount of jiggle to them. The best way I have found for testing proper doneness is to lightly touch the top of one of the custards. It should feel kind of spongy-firm. It won’t feel like liquid – keep cooking if that’s the case. Start checking around the 35-minute mark and then every few minutes after that. Mine average somewhere between 40 and 45 minutes.
If it has a very solid feeling then it is probably overcooked and you should immediately remove it from the oven. Overcooked crème brûlée will still be quite delicious. The custard won’t be quite as delicate, it may crack on top, and it may be a little bit dense. But definitely do not toss it out. Just remember to adjust the next time you are baking.
4. Remove and Chill
The super easy part (as long as you can have patience).
Literally taking the custard out of the oven, letting it cool on the counter for 30 minutes, and then putting it in the fridge to cool for at least 3 hours and up to a day. This lets the custard fully set. Also, custard tends to taste best when chilled. I mean a lot of ice cream is a custard base, and that stuff is pretty cold…
5. Torch the Top
The REALLY fun part, if you do it the fun way with a torch.
You can also use the broiler feature on your oven but it is not nearly as fun. And I have a lot less practice at that method so I don’t have any great instructions for it. For this method, just turn on the broiler and put your sugared custards underneath it on a sheet pan. And try not to burn things.
For the butane torch method, get out the sugar, top all of the custards, fire up the torch, and start blasting away. Note that you will need butane fuel to go along with your torch. In practice, you want to keep the flame pointed at the top of the custard but sitting a couple of inches off of it. The heat will still reach the sugar but you will have less chance of burning things. Make sure to move the flame around the entire top so that you are evenly melting the sugar. Once you no longer see many individual sugar crystals on your custard, you can move on to the next one.
After all of the custards have been torched, put them back in the fridge to chill again. This won’t be for quite as long, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. They can be eaten right away, but I think that they are best served cold. When heating up the sugar the top portion of the custard also gets some of that heat.
Crème Brûlée Flavors and Toppings
Flavoring your crème brûlée typically occurs with step 1 above while making the crème anglaise. This is because you want to flavor the custard base and many times you will do that by steeping your heavy cream with the flavor. In this recipe, I do that with the vanilla. Chocolate, lemon, lavender, pumpkin pie spice. Get that flavor in before baking your custard.
Topping your custard will happen after you have torched the sugar and right before you eat it. Fruit is the topping that most easily pairs with this dessert – the natural sugars and flavors really do complement the vanilla custard. Berries are especially delicious. However, chocolates, sauces, or compotes could also go nicely, almost like with a nice slice of cheesecake.
How to Make Crème BrûléeCourse: DessertsDifficulty: Hard, Easier the Second Time
Follow the steps carefully to get a velvety smooth vanilla bean custard with crackly, caramelized sugar on top
1 vanilla bean, or 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups heavy whipping cream
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, plus about 6 tablespoons for topping
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C)
- If using a vanilla bean, slice it down the middle and scrape out the seeds
- Combine heavy whipping cream, vanilla bean pod (or extract), and the scraped seeds in a saucepan
- Bring the cream mixture to a simmer over medium heat, lower the temperature, and cover for about 10 minutes
- While it is simmering, whisk together the egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar
- When the cream has simmered at least 10 minutes, remove it from the heat and scoop out about 1 cup of the heated cream
- Slowly, slowly drizzle the cream into the egg and sugar mixture while constantly whisking
- Now slowly whisk the cream/egg/sugar mixture back into the saucepan
- Place the saucepan on the lowest heat setting for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally
- Remove the pan from the heat, and strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer
- Prepare the water bath by getting out a 9″ x 13″ baking dish, placing 6 small ramekins (I used 6 ounce glass ones) inside the baking dish, and then fill the baking dish with hot water to cover 2/3 of the ramekins
- Pour the custard mixture equally into the 6 ramekins
- Carefully place the baking dish into the oven, water will want to slosh around so try moving steadily
- Bake the custards in the oven, checking for doneness around 35 minutes in and every few minutes after up to 50 minutes – it should be jiggly but not liquidy and be almost spongy to the touch
- Remove the baking dish from the oven (extra careful since water will be very hot) and remove the ramekins from the baking dish, placing them on a cooling rack for 30 minutes
- Put the ramekins in the fridge to chill for at least 3 hours and up to 1 day
- Remove the custards from the fridge, evenly cover the top of each one with about 1 tablespoon of sugar each
- Use a butane kitchen torch or the oven broiler to caramelize the sugar on top of the custard
- Chill again in the fridge for about 20 minutes, then top with your favorite fruit and enjoy