Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Burn, baby! Burn!

It was one of those weeks when most women get a radically new haircut or splurge on a pair of sexy shoes. You know -- when you get a terrible itch for a change? The problem was that if I cut my hair any shorter, I'd have to shave my head; and my idea of sexy shoes are dansko clogs that I already own. So I decided to do the only other crazy thing that came to mind -- make a dessert.
If you've been reading this blog, you probably noticed that I am not a big dessert person. I don't have much of a sweet tooth and get into a dessert making mood rarely. But last time I was at Russo's (my produce market), a bag of turbinado sugar caught my attention -- the kind they tell you to use for crème brûlée to form the torched crust that is oh-so-satisfying to break with a spoon. This got me thinking... Is this "gourmet" sugar with its "gourmet" price really necessary?

I made a batch of crème brûlée to find out. I used regular sugar on one cup and turbinado sugar for the other. Turns out turbinado sugar is actually worth the splurge, but no, it's not strictly necessary. The cup on the left was sprinkled with turbinado sugar, the one on the right with regular granulated sugar. Turbinado produced a prettier crust that was more crackly, though the regular one was not bad either. The most important thing is to torch it correctly. When I used to work in a restaurant, torching crème brûlées was one of my favorite dessert plating tasks. It's really quite easy if you know a few tricks:
  1. Throw away that stupid crème brûlée torch from William and Sonoma for $40. Go to a hardware store and buy yourself a cheapy Bernzomatic Propane Torch (like the ones plumbers use).
  2. Pat the top of the custard with paper towel to remove any moisture before sprinkling it with sugar.
  3. Sprinkle with sugar evenly.
  4. Don't move your torch all over the custard. Hold it in one place until that square inch is nicely browned, then move to the next square inch.
Here is my basic crème brûlée recipe adapted from the Joy of Cooking.

Serves 4

1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
6 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla (or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise)
Extra sugar (preferably turbinado) for torching the top

Heat the cream and vanilla almost to a simmer. If using vanilla bean, put it in the cream and let it steep 5 minutes. Scrape out the seeds from the bean with a small knife and return them to the cream. Discard the bean.

In a medium bowl, stir with a wooden spoon just until blended 6 egg yolks and 6 Tbsp sugar. Gradually stir in the cream. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl or large measuring cup with a pouring lip.

Pour into 4 cups or ramekins and place in the water bath. Set the pan in the oven and set the oven temperature at 250F (that's right -- the oven was not preheated). Bake until the custards are set but still slightly quivery in the center when the cups are gently shaken, 60-90 minutes. Start checking at 50 minutes. Remove the custards from the water bath and let cool to room temperature. Then chill in the fridge until cold. Cover each one with plastic wrap and continue to chill. The total refrigeration time should be at least 8 hours or up to 2 days. Sprinkle with sugar, torch, and enjoy. Have fun playing with fire :)


aforkfulofspaghetti said...

They look perfect! Maybe I need to get myself a blowtorch after all...

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

I love, love, love crème brûlée, and this looks absolutely fabulous, Helen. Marion's in charge of it in our house, including the torching. Thanks for the tip on patting the top of the custard dry with a paper towel.

Anonymous said...

I heard something disgusting that included "Creme Brulee". Since then I have to call it Burnt Cream.

But I love the recipe and, even more, your research into the two sugars.

Thank you.

Cara said...

Hi Helen, just came across your business website and blog. What an interesting business you have! I am a fellow food blogger in MA and I will be adding your blog to my google reader for updates. Do you do private parties or classes for groups of people that want to sign up together?

Helen said...

Hi Cara,

Great to hear from another MA blogger. I don't do any private classes for now since I am only teaching part-time.


Meg said...


I'm so happy you made creme brulee! I have been really into it lately.
Leo and I went out to eat at a great place in DC and they had an earl grey creme brulee and it was fantastic! So the next day I tried it out and I too was so yummy! Then, for Leo's birthday, I made a lemon-lavender one and I think by far, that was my favorite! It's so fun to try different things. Also, adding liquors can make them very good too!

PS- Confectioner's sugar browns VERY nicely!

Anonymous said...

I've never used a torch on anything, so I'm not sure if this is just stupid.

But, I love dark amber and grade b maple syrop. Would that harden into a nice crisp, burnt creme surface, or would it just become a nasty black mess?

Helen said...

Meg: great to hear from you! sorry for a late reply. we just got back from an awesome vacation in the berkshires. lemon lavender creme brulee sounds so awesome! I'll have to try that.

Tom: unfortunately, maple syrup wouldn't work.