Crème brûlée

It’s also called “burnt cream”, “caramel cream”, and “Trinity Cream”. It was invented in the 17th century. Or the 18th century. Or the 19th century. It’s French. Or English. Or Spanish.

Whatever the truth about this dish is, it’s one of the favorites in restaurants these days because it’s both delicious and showy and I’m convinced there are nearly as many recipes for it as there are chefs.

There’s a nice history of crème brûlée here. Here’s a sampler of some of the best recipes I’ve found for it. There is no single right way!

Julia Child

I believe it was Julia Child who popularized the trick of using a propane torch to brown the top.

¼ cup granulated sugar
4 egg yolks
1 tsp. cornstarch or potato starch (optional)
1¾ cup scalded cream
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
Enough brown sugar to top the custard by ¼ inch

  1. In a large mixing bowl gradually beat the sugar into the egg yolks and continue beating for 2 to 3 minutes until the mixture is pale yellow and forms the ribbon.
  2. While beating the egg mixture very gradually pour on the scalded cream in a thin stream of droplets so that the yolks are slowly warmed.
  3. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and set over moderate heat, stirring slowly and continuously with a wooden spatula or spoon, and reaching all over the bottom and sides of the pan, until the sauce thickens just enough to coat the spoon with a light, creamy layer. Do not let the custard come anywhere near the simmer. Maximum temperature is 165°F (170° if you have used starch).
  4. Beat the sauce off heat for a minute or two to cool it.
  5. Strain it through a fine sieve, and beat in the vanilla (or other flavoring).
  6. Chill in a heatproof serving dish.
  7. When thoroughly chilled cover the top of the custard with ¼ inch brown sugar.
  8. Flame under a broiler or using a propane torch.
  9. Chill and serve.

Dionne Lucas

Here’s what Dionne Lucas had to say about crème brûlée:

“The original recipe came from Kings College, Cambridge, England, two hundred years ago [ed. written in the 1950’s]. It was then served in shallow crystal dishes and a gold hammer was passed around to crack the clear caramel. This dish was served in the Great Hall on special occasions.”

2 cups thick cream
¼ inch vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar

  1. Put the cream in a pan with the piece of vanilla bean.
  2. Slowly bring it just to a boil and remove it from the heat.
  3. Beat the egg yolks in a bowl with 4 Tbsp. sugar until very creamy and light.
  4. Very carefully and slowly pour the warm cream over the egg yolks, stirring all the while.
  5. Transfer the egg and cream mixture to a heavy pan and stir it over low heat until it coats the back of a metal spoon.
  6. Pour it into a shallow glass heatproof serving dish and chill it overnight in the refrigerator.
  7. Next day cover the top completely with granulated sugar so that none of the cream shows through.
  8. Place the dish on a bowl of crushed ice and set it under a hot broiler to carmalize the sugar.
  9. When it has caramelized, return the custard to the refrigerator for at least 3 minutes before serving it.

Graham Kerr

For restaurant and hotel tricks nobody beats Graham Kerr.

20 fl. oz. heavy cream
4 oz. castor (superfine) sugar
6 egg yolks
1 vanilla bean
Enough castor sugar to cover the custard by ¼ inch

  1. Heat cream with vanilla bean until boiling.
  2. Remove from heat.
  3. Beat egg yolks with sugar until well blended and beat gradually into hot cream.
  4. Put mixture back on heat and stir until custard has thickened slightly.
  5. Pour mixture into a 1-quart ovenproof dish.
  6. Place dish in pan of cold water and bake for 1 hour at 300°F.
  7. Remove from oven, cool, and refrigerate.
  8. Cover top of cream with ¼ inch thickness of castor sugar.
  9. Set cream in a dish surrounded by ice. Place under broiler until sugar caramelizes. Serve immediately.
2 comments… add one
  • Ginny Lavender

    You don’t have to do all that. I make creme brulee all the time, because it’s so easy and I like to play with the torch. Just dump the egg yolks, sugar, cream (or half and half or a combination) and flavoring (I like drops of orange flavoring with a couple teaspoons of Grand Marnier). Whisk it all together and put in the dishes. No scalding cream, etc. It works just fine.

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