Crème brûlée, French for "burnt cream", is a satiny custard. It is served chilled yet glistens with a crisp caramelized sugar top, which when tapped with the back of a dessert spoon, shatters like glass, revealing that cool, vanilla-infused custard hidden below.
4 cups heavy cream
10 large egg yolks, graded large
1 to 2 vanilla beans, split and scraped or 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar, plus extra to caramelize top
- Using a wire whisk or an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, vigorously whisk egg yolks with granulated sugar in a large bowl, until mixture becomes light in color and sugar has dissolved a bit; set aside.
- In a medium-sized saucepan, combine heavy cream with vanilla beans which have been carefully split down the center, its fragrant black seeds scraped from the pod, and both combined with the cream. Bring the mixture to a simmer; when small bubbles have formed around the edges of the cream it is ready.
- Gradually pour the cream mixture into the egg/sugar mix, whisking gently by hand to combine. Strain custard through a fine mesh strainer, retrieve vanilla bean and place it back into the custard. Chill and cover mixture with a sheet of plastic wrap, pierced several times to release any steam (chilling mixture overnight will let the flavors develop and allow custard to thicken a bit).
- Preheat oven to 350°F (175°F). Place individual ramekins in a baking pan, large enough to hold 8 to 10 six-ounce custard cups and deep enough to allow the water for the bain-marie to be added reaching at least halfway up the sides of the dishes.
- Remove the vanilla bean from the custard mixture (can be reserved for another use) and fill ramekins 3/4 full. Place pan in preheated oven and pour hot water into baking pan so water level reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover pan with a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil, sealing edges to retain steam. Cook 40 to 50 minutes or until custards are set. To test for doneness, gently shake the individual ramekins; if center is still a bit liquid-like or wobbly return custards to oven and continue to cook, checking every 5 to 7 minutes, until it has just set, with a small area in the center, the size of a quarter, still a bit loose.
- Remove ramekins from baking pan and chill custard in refrigerator several hours or until chilled through.
- To serve put a thin layer of granulated sugar atop each custard. Using a blow torch, over a heat and flame proof surface (like over a large cookie or baking sheet) caramelize sugar working from the outside in towards the middle keeping the torch in constant motion. Sugar should be golden brown and caramelized never black. If burnt, let the sugar layer cool a few minutes than peel it away with a paring knife and begin again. Alternatively you could caramelize the sugar under a broiler, keeping a careful watch over it and rotating it to cook evenly.
Makes 8 to 10 individual crème brûlées.