Recipe: Vanilla Crème Brûlée

One of my many kitchen-oriented Christmas gifts this year was a set of oval ramekins and a crème brûlée
torch from my grandma, and I’ve been eager to test them out. Vanilla is the classic flavor for crème brûlée and, lucky for me, one of my other gifts was a bottle of Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract from my cousins, so I was all set to make my first set of crème brûlée custards. The process is surprisingly easy and, while having a crème brûlée torch helps, you can caramelize the sugar for that delicious crunchy topping by using the broiler in your oven. These little desserts turned out silky and creamy, with a heavenly vanilla flavor, and perfect, golden-brown sugar tops. 

Serves: 4
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5-10 minutes, plus 30-35 in the oven
Difficulty: Easy
Special equipment: Oven-safe dishes for the custard (porcelain ramekins are best; they should be about 6-7 oz.), clean kitchen towel, crème brûlée torch or oven broiler

Ingredients 

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar 
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract (I used Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla extract and highly recommend it)
  • Approx. 8-12 tsp. fine raw sugar or granulated sugar for caramelizing on top

Directions
Preheat the oven to 300*F and bring a small pot of water to a boil (I filled an electric tea kettle and boiled water that way). In a medium pot over medium heat, combine the heavy cream and 1/4 cup sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is steaming hot (but not simmering or boiling; about 5 minutes). Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and vanilla until well-blended. Once the cream and sugar mixture is heated through, gradually pour it into the egg yolk and vanilla, stirring or whisking the mixture constantly. Strain the custard mixture through a fine-mesh strainer/sieve, or a strainer lined with cheesecloth (I actually used a loose tea strainer, because I didn’t have anything else that would work, and it worked out well). Divide the custard mixture between four ramekins. Line a large, shallow, oven-safe dish with a clean kitchen towel, place the ramekins in the dish, and carefully pour the water you heated up earlier into the pan (avoid splashing the custard) until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the dish loosely with foil and place in the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the custard is cooked through and gently wiggles when the ramekins are shaken. Allow the pan to sit out and cool, then remove the ramekins and allow them to cool to room temperature, then place them in the fridge and cool for at least 3 hours. Before serving, sprinkle the tops with 2-3 tsp. sugar and caramelize the topping with a crème brûlée torch or place the ramekins in the oven under the broiler (3-5 inches from the heat source) for 3-5 minutes until the top is golden brown (watch carefully so it doesn’t burn). The sugar will harden within seconds and then they’re read to serve. 
The custard can be made in advance and kept in the fridge for 2 or 3 days, but always caramelize sugar on top immediately before serving. If you caramelize the sugar and then place the whole thing back in the fridge, the sugar will soften and get slimy, which is no good.

Beautiful golden-brown top

 These dishes of crème brûlée turned out beautifully! The custard was rich, creamy, and oh-so-soft—really and truly heavenly. There’s nothing quite like tapping that hardened golden-brown sugar with a spoon and hearing that delicate crack as you break into the silky custard beneath. Crème brûlée is a delicious, elegant dessert, perfect for a dinner party or date night, but as something so easy to make, it works well as a regular weeknight dessert as well. You can easily play around with flavors, making anything from chocolate to mint to raspberry flavored custard—the possibilities are endless!


Update (5/31/12): Tried out lavender crème brûlée the other day and it was absolutely delicious! Here’s how to make it (short and sweet version): When you’re heating the heavy cream, add 1-2 tbsp. dried lavender to it and let it cook. Once the creme starts to bubble, turn off the heat and let the lavender steep in it for at least an hour. Reheat the creme mixture before adding it to the eggs, then strain the completed mixture to remove the lavender. (The recipe I followed for this version made 8 servings and had you add the vanilla to the heavy cream and whisk the sugar into the egg, which is the opposite of the above recipe, but I think either way would work. If only making 4 servings, 1 tbsp. of dried lavender should be enough).

Lavender, steeping in the heavy cream and vanilla mixture


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