As one of the most famous desserts in American restaurants since the 1980’s, Creme Brûlée isn’t from where you would expect it to be from. I am sure you have been to an Italian restaurant and ordered the smooth custard dessert with the crunchy caramelized topping, and have always associated it with Italian cuisine. A famous dessert that actually originates from Italy (close to creme brûlée) is pan a cotta. The lighter and less flashy custard dessert seemed to not pick up steam in Italian restaraunts in the US. Creme Brûlée does have a European origins, and there’s still some debate on clearly where the first emergence was. The most popular theory is that it originated in France in the 1600’s.
Creme Brûlée has gone by names: in the 1702 English translation version of Massialot’s book the name “burnt cream” was used. Then in 1740 Massialot referenced the recipe as crême à l’Angloise, or “English Cream.” The dish then vanished from French cook books until the 1980’s. In 1879 Trinity College in Cambridge came up with its own version that they dubbed as “Trinity Cream” or “Cambridge Burnt Cream.” The college would burn their coat of arms with a branding iron on the tipoff the cream. In Spain, it is also know as Crema Catalana; instead of using a flame to caramelize the the sugar they use a specially made iron.
I found the first two recipes I’m sharing in a cookbook I had recieved a few Christmases ago called Crème Brûlée: The worlds “most famous” dessert. The first recipe is the basic Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée- the first recipe that should be mastered before moving on to the creative sweet and savory options this book provides. With the recent holidays I thought it would interesting to try the Sweet Pumpkin Crème Brûlée recipe which is supposed to have the consistency of a pumpkin pie without the crust. For this recipe I used the books version as a guideline and added a few more spices to resemble the taste of pumpkin pie. I also strained the custard one more time after adding it to the pumpkin purée to give it the creamy texture like the vanilla crème brûlée.
Since the ingredients list for a Crème brûlée is short, it is preferred to get the best ingredients you possibly can. In the book they go over the basic ingredients and equipment needed to make a Crème brûlée.
- Cream: traditionally made with heavy cream, you can also use a combination of milk and other creams such as clotted cream or Crème fraîche, or mascarpone. If you want to make it a lighter custard you could use light cream, sour cream, or buttermilk.
- Eggs: in the book all of their recipes use medium size eggs, so for accuracy try to do the same. For a little help on converting egg sizes if you do not have medium eggs, here are two charts that I found helpful from www.incredibleegg.org
- Sugar: traditionally superfine or finely granulated sugar are the best when making the custard itself because it is easier to mix in. You can also use this type of sugar for the topping, or if you have confectioner ‘s (powdered) sugar, light brown sugar, or Demyerara (raw sugar, and the one I most comonly use in restaurants. After trying all of the sugars this is the one I recommend the most, it is the one that I found to create the best crust).
- Baking dishes: all the recipes in the book I used to make these Crème brûlées were made with 3/4 cup or 3 3/4 x 1 3/4 inch individual ovenproof China ramekins or custard cups. Individual glass or ceramic soufflé dishes at also be used.
- *Bain Marie: this one is the one you need to make sure you pay attention to, this is the piece of equipment that you can make at home and will keep your custard from baking too quickly. A Bain Marie is a water bath. What you will need is a roasting pan (or shallow casserole dish) and some water. You take your ramekins and place them inside to pan or dish, using warm water fill up the pan to come up to the sides of the ramekins by half way. DO NOT GET ANY WATER IN YOUR CRÈME BRÛLÉE, THE CUSTARD WILL NOT SET PROPERLY! For more on the uses of a Bain-Marie visit my Tip Tuesday page.
- A Fine Sieve (strainer): used for straining flavoring from the custard or remove any threads of egg after making the custard. Essential for a velvety smooth custard.
- Blowtorches (or a blowtorch, blue flame lighter, or a heated up spoon): some are powered with lighter fluid and some with butane gas canister.
Now that you have learned a little about the history of one of the worlds most popular desserts, and what is needed to make them, let’s dive right in. For both recipes, I’m going to describe the basic process for each, and then for the full recipe, check out the recipe cards at the bottom of the page. I hope you enjoy these recipes and this dessert as much as we do and remember to always stay hungry!
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
- Slit the vanilla bean length wise and put into a saucepan.
- Pour the cream into the pan and bring almost to a boil. Take off the heat, and let rest for 15 min so the vanilla flavor can develop.
- Take the vanilla bean out and scrape out the seeds using either a knife or the side of the pot. Discard the casing.
- Use a fork to mix together the egg yolks and superfine sugar in a bowl.
- Reheat the cream, gradually whisking in the cream into the egg/sugar mixture.
- Strain the mixture back into the sauce pan.
- Place the ramekins into the roasting pan, and divide the custard between them. Being very careful not to get any water into the custard, pour warm water into the pan until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
- Bake for 20-25 min until the custards are just set with a slight softness in the center.
- Let the dishes cool in the water, and then transfer to the refrigerator for 3-4 hours. The longer they are in the fridge, the better set they will be.
- 25 min before serving, remove the Crème brûlée from the fridge. Using your fingertip, take a dap of water and run along the top of the custard making it slightly moist. Pour which ever sugar you are using over the top and turn upside down to remove excess sugar.
- Now this is where the brûlée part comes in: using a blowtorch (or similar lighter, or a heated spoon like a salamander) torch the sugar until it is completely caramelized.
- Serve at room temperature.