Crème Brûlée

Allegedly, this dish has its origins at Trinity College, Cambridge, where to this day it is known as Trinity Cream. I fell in love with it when I lived in Paris.

There are probably more constructive ways of spending Springtime in Paris, but I was compelled to try every crème brûlée in my arrondissement. This resulted in significant weight gain, but a finely honed appreciation of what makes a good one. You’re going to have to forget all mention of flour or cornstarch to stabilise the egg yolks. Yes, that works. Yes, that’s good enough for custard and for pastéis de nata, but the nicest crème brûlée is the one where the custard has a very light texture, to offset the crunchy sugar, the added starch just makes it too solid; too safe.

I’m afraid the temperatures and durations are a bit vague. You will need to experiment to discover the optimum for your oven and your ramekins. Do not even think about serving this to guests on your first attempt.

Start by eyeing up your ramekins, and working out how much custard you’ll need. Some people like very wide shallow servings, to maximise the crunchy toffee layer, other people prefer theirs deep and creamy. For each six egg yolks, you’ll end up with about 600mL of mixture.

Assuming six average sized portions, you’ll need:

  • the yolks from 6 large eggs
  • 250 mL milk
  • 250 mL double cream
  • 50g caster sugar
  • things to infuse, typically a vanilla pod (split), plus…
  • 100g of Demerara sugar for the topping

Mix the yolks with half the sugar.

Put the cream and milk, together with the remaining sugar, and whatever you’re infusing, bring to the boil, immediately turn off the heat and leave for 10 minutes.

Get the oven going at 140ºC – mine’s a fan forced so you may need to go higher for gas – or lower if you’re using very shallow ramekins.

Beat the yolks and sugar until thoroughly combined. If you use an electric whisk you’ll end up with a lot of foam on the surface, which isn’t useful.

After fishing out whatever you’re infusing, pour in the cooled milk/cream/sugar mix into the egg/sugar mix. If it’s still hot, do it gradually so you don’t cook the eggs!

Mix well, and scoop/pop/eradicate any bubbles and/or froth. This is important: if there’s a layer of bubbles on top when you bake, it will go hard and leathery.

Pour the mixture into ramekins in a baking tray, and fill the tray with hot water coming to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (I’m paranoid, and put the ramekins on top of a folded up teatowel, so there’s water underneath as well. This may be unnecessary.)

Bake for around an hour, but start watching them like a hawk after 45 minutes. They’ll probably colour slightly on top. If they start to puff up, they’re done, and in need of rescuing. However, before that, you can tell if they’re done by giving the baking dish a poke, and they’ll still wobble, but only slightly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool. I leave the ramekins in the water bath, mainly out of cowardice, as extracting hot ramekins from scalding water isn’t my idea of fun. Once cooled, cover with cling film and refrigerate.

Once properly cold, you can then sprinkle the custard with Demerara sugar, and have your wicked way with the blowtorch. Caster sugar works just as well, although it will produce a thinner crust. To my lasting shame, I have a salamander given to me by a friend, which has seen no successful action.

(Photos? Sorry. Greed got in the way.)

Variations

My local French restaurant, sadly fallen upon hard times and no longer a going concern, used to serve a dégustation des crèmes brûlées, which was a platter of them, each having been made with a custard infused with different things: lime zest, orange zest and cardamoms, lemon zest and cinnamon, etc.

I’m sure you can get creative, but don’t forget to share with the group.


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