Recently, Roger and I prepared a special Christmas dinner for my sisters and spouses. It was especially celebratory as last year at this time I was quite sick and unable to enjoy the holidays as much as I usually do. This year, I happily switched over to my Christmas dishes as soon as the last Thanksgiving dish was dried and put away!
Our special meal called for a special dessert. Since my brother-in-law must stick to a gluten-free diet, crème brûlée came to mind. Not only is it gluten free, but it is a great make-ahead dessert which leaves the cook free for other things.
I’m sure most people are familiar with crème brûlée as it is a very popular dessert found on the menu of many restaurants. If you’re not, it’s an egg custard (think pudding) which is finished off with a crackly sugar topping. One of the delights of eating crème brûlée is the textural contrast between the topping and the silky smooth custard below. Most restaurants serve crème brûlée in a shallow ramekin so that there is more surface area for the crackly topping. Personally, I prefer to make my crème brûlée in a traditional ramekin (also known as a custard cup) which has 2 1/2″ high sides. I prefer the taller ramekins as I like the ratio of more custard to topping they provide.
So, if you have the more common custard cups, they’ll work just fine—there is no need to go out and buy shallow ramekins.
You’ll notice that I’ve listed strawberries as a garnish, but I forgot to buy strawberries for my special dessert. I just told everyone to imagine a large, very pretty strawberry sliced so that it fanned out in the shape of a flower on top of the crème brûlée. Turned out my brother-in-law said that there was an imaginary raspberry on top of his!
One year ago: Real Deal Southern Caramel Cake
Two years ago: Toffee Graham Crackers
Three years ago: Potica
Four years ago: Huevos Rancheros
Five years ago: Baked Stuffed Mushrooms
- 2 tsp. vanilla bean paste OR 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 4 cups heavy cream, chilled – divided
- 2/3 cups granulated sugar
- Pinch salt
- 10 large egg yolks
- 12 tsp. Demerara sugar or turbinado sugar
- 8 large strawberries for garnish
- 8 ramekins with 2 1/2″ sides
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 300o F. Place a kitchen towel on the bottom of a large baking dish or roasting pan; set aside. Bring a large kettle of water to a boil over high heat.
Combine the vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract), 2 cups of the cream, granulated sugar, and salt together in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for about 15 minutes.
While the mixture is cooling, whisk the egg yolks together in a large bowl until uniform. (As far as the egg whites go, Roger and I always enjoy an egg white omelette with broccoli and Romano cheese either for supper or breakfast the next morning.)
Stir the remaining 2 cups cream into the cream-sugar mixture. Then, whisk about 1 cup of the cream-sugar mixture into the yolks until loosened and combined; repeat with 1 more cup of the mixture. Add the remaining cream-sugar mixture into the egg yolk mixture and whisk until the egg yolk mixture is evenly colored and thoroughly combined.
Arrange the 8 ramekins on the dish towel in the baking pan. Gently place the baking dish with the ramekins on the oven rack. Pour the boiling water into the baking dish, being careful not to splash any water into the ramekins, until the water reaches approximately two-thirds the height of the ramekins.
Bake until the centers of the custards are just barely set and are no longer sloshy, and a digital instant-read thermometer inserted in the centers registers 170 to 175o F, 30 to 35 minutes (25 to 30 minutes for shallow fluted dishes). Begin checking the temperature about 5 minutes before the recommended time. I used taller ramekins, and the custards were cooked in 30 minutes
Transfer the ramekins from the baking dish to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Be extremely careful removing the baking dish from the oven! You will be dealing with a pan full of extremely hot water which will slosh around as you remove the pan. You may prefer to pull out the oven shelf and remove the ramekins from the pan of water one by one using a reliable, sturdy pair of tongs. Then let the pan of water cool off before removing from the oven.
To Store: Wrap each ramekin tightly in plastic and refrigerate for up to 4 days.
To Serve: Unwrap the ramekins; if condensation has collected on the custards, place a paper towel on the surface to soak up the moisture. I definitely needed to do this! Sprinkle each custard with about 1 1/2 teaspoons of Demerara or turbinado sugar (2 teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap the ramekin for even coverage. Ignite a torch and, following the manufacturer’s instructions, caramelize the sugar by holding the end of the flame about 1 inch from the surface of the custard until the sugar melts, then burns to a golden brown, proceeding the same way until the entire surface is deeply golden brown and hard.
If you do not own a cooking torch, you can caramelize the sugar crust under your oven’s broiler. I would do this using the middle shelf. Keep an eagle eye on the tops as they can burn in an instant! Refrigerate the ramekins, uncovered, to rechill, about 30 minutes (but no longer) before serving. I like to serve the crème brûlée with a strawberry “flower” on top. Just make cut very thin slices in the strawberry while leaving the stem end intact; then spread and fan the slices out decoratively.
- If your oven has a history of uneven heating, the custards may finish at different rates, so it is advisable to check each one separately rather than take the whole lot out at once. Also, unless you use a kitchen scale, the volume of custard in each cup may vary.
- The best way to judge doneness is with a digital instant-read thermometer. The custards, especially if baked in shallow fluted dishes, will not be deep enough to provide an accurate reading with a dial-face thermometer. Even though crème brûlée is most often served in shallow ramekins in restaurants, I prefer the taller ramekins as I like the ratio of more custard to topping they provide.
- For the caramelized sugar crust, I used Demerara sugar. Regular granulated sugar will work, too, but use only 1 scant teaspoon on each ramekin or 1 1/2 teaspoons on each shallow fluted dish.
Source: A recipe from Cook’s Illustrated