Crème Brûlée 

The basic method for custard:

Many recipes direct you to scald the milk and cream; this is a holdover from the days of unpasteurized milk. Scalding does, however, shorten cooking time because the milk is already hot; it also ensures that the sugar dissolves completely in the custard base before baking, so I recommend this step. If you're making a flavored custard, add any additional ingredients at this point so they can steep in the hot cream to extract their full flavor.

Don't dump the sugar directly onto the eggs and let it sit; this causes the yolks to "burn" into hard little lumps that detract from your creamy custard. Rather, add the sugar while your whisk is moving; this way, the sugar will be gradually incorporated into the eggs.

One of the most important techniques in baking is called tempering, which is the slow addition of a hot liquid to cold eggs. Tempering gradually brings the temperature of the two mixtures together and keeps you from making scrambled eggs, which is what you get when a scalding hot liquid shocks an egg. To temper, add a large spoonful of the hot cream to the egg-sugar mixture, whisking all the while. Add another spoonful, and then another, and continue until all the cream is mixed in.

The Wobble Test Says it's Done...
Ovens vary in temperature day to day; sometimes your custard base is hotter or cooler than usual; perhaps your ramekins have thinner or thicker walls. I always play it safe and check the custards early just in case. Also, custards continue to cook a little and set up after they're taken from the oven--another reason to take them out just before they're done.

To test for doneness, wiggle a ramekin around. It should be wobbly like Jell-O, but not soupy. When the custard in the ramekin moves as one mass rather than as a cup of liquid cream, it's ready. If a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, then the custard is probably overcooked. If this happens, remove the ramekins immediately from the water bath and plunge them into ice water to bring the temperature down and stop the cooking. Note that crème caramel will usually cook much faster than the other custards because of the egg whites in the base, which are full of proteins that coagulate at a lower temperature.

Crème Brûlée

1 quart heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
10 egg yolks
Pinch salt

For the Caramel Topping:
1/2 cup sugar

Use 6-oz. ramekins. Heat the oven to 325°F.
Using the basic method for custard...
Heat the cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat until scalded (you'll see small bubbles on the sides of the pan). Split the vanilla bean in half, if using, and scrape the seeds into the cream.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, slowly whisk the sugar into the egg yolks. Slowly temper the hot cream into the sugar/yolk mixture. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher or measuring cup. Stir in the salt and vanilla extract, if using.

Follow the instructions below for making the crackly topping for crème brûlée.

The Blowtorch Method:
By far the easiest method of caramelizing sugar on a crème brûlée is with a propane blowtorch. Blowtorches are sold in most hardware stores. I highly recommend buying one with an automatic ignition, which allows you to light the torch with the press of a button--no matches needed.

Sift a thin, even layer of sugar over the refrigerated custards, ignite the torch, and with a slow, sweeping motion, guide the flame directly on the surface of the custard. The nozzle should be 2 to 3 inches from the surface, with the tip of the flame licking the sugar. The sugar will melt slowly at first and then caramelize. As soon as the entire surface is glossy brown, move on to the next custard.

Omit the vanilla. Crush 1/2 cup espresso beans into coarse pieces, add to the cream/milk, and heat to a simmer. Remove from the heat; infuse for 5 min. Strain and proceed.

Omit the vanilla. Cut a 3-inch piece of fresh ginger into very thin slices, add to the cream/milk, and heat to a simmer. Remove from the heat; infuse for 15 to 20 min. Strain, bring back to a simmer, and proceed.

--Joanne Chang is the pastry chef at Payard Pâtisserie in New York City.
From Fine Cooking #25
photo: Ben Fink

Recipe Link: