Crème brulée must be one of the most popular desserts we serve in the restaurant. Customers frequently decide upon it before they’ve even chosen their starter or main course. It’s not often made at home, but it’s so much easier than you think and most of the work can be done in advance. And you don’t necessarily need a blow torch to do the top.
And one further thing: despite the spelling, Crème brulée is a British dessert; originally called burnt cream. However, it seems the French liked at least one thing we cooked and gave it their own fancy name.
One pint double cream
Four egg yokes
One to two tablespoons of caster sugar – depending on how sweet you want it
Some demerara sugar for the topping
A few drops of vanilla essence
The first part should be done a few hours before the meal, or even the day before. Place the cream in a saucepan and slowly bring to boiling point. Whilst it’s heating, in a bowl whisk the egg yokes and caster sugar together until they go a pale cream colour. Pour the hot cream onto the egg and sugar mixture, whisking all the time. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and, turning the heat down very low, stir continuously, getting into all the corners until it begins to thicken. This tells you that the egg yolks are staring to cook. Too much and they’ll start to scramble, so if you feel that the mixture is getting too hot, remove it from the heat and continue stirring. Once it’s definitely thickening into a custard, pour into four ramekins (or more if they’re small), leaving room at the top for the sugar disk. Cover the ramekins and chill them in the refrigerator.
The time to produce the hard caramel topping is within an hour of serving. If you do it too far in advance the sugar disk can absorb moisture from the air and soften. I’ve got three different ways of producing the disk.
The traditional, but most difficult way, is to pre-heat the grill until very hot, sprinkle the top of each brulée with demerara sugar and place the ramekin close to the heat until the sugar melts. However, it’s not an exact science with a domestic grill and if it’s not hot enough you can end up cooking the custard underneath before the sugar melts.
In restaurants, a blow torch is the common way to melt the sugar. They can be bought from hardware shops and there are even ones designed specifically for the kitchen. However, the ramekin needs tipping as you melt the sugar to ensure it runs evenly over the custard, so be very careful of your fingers – and with the blow torch in general!
One easy method I once read about and have tried successfully is to gently heat the sugar in a heavy pan until it melts, tipping the pan a bit to combine it all. It’ll take ten or fifteen minutes, but once melted, immediately pour it on top of the brulées. It will harden in a few seconds and will produce that perfect hard disk on top of the cold, creamy custard. (To clean the pan, boil up some water in it until the remaining melted sugar dissolves).
To serve, you could leave them as they are, placed on a plate, or the following ideas provide a number of variations:
Using the fruit coulis readily available in supermarkets these days, place a couple of contrasting colours on the plate and use the point of a knife to draw patterns through them.
Alternatively, make a fruit compote (this can be done well in advance) by placing a large handful of fruit berries (i.e. frozen fruits of the forest berries from the supermarket) in a small saucepan. Add two teaspoons of sugar, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a little lemon zest. Heat gently and simmer for three to four minutes. Cool and serve a spoonful alongside the brulée on a large plate.
Alternatively, make the compote before the brulée and place a spoonful or two in each ramekin before the custard as a little surprise.
Previously published in Oldfields cook book – Passion for Real Food – and in the Northern Echo