Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Crème brulee

And now for something totally different. Crème brulee.

The blog so far has been a lot of basics, and not a lot of gourmet. This is definitely gourmet. Crème brulee (which is French for "burnt cream," and is essentially a custard with a caramelized sugar crust) is decadent, fattening, and guaranteed to please any guests. Plus, it's healthier than a pint of Ben & Jerry's. (Really!)
I have a love-hate relationship with crème brulee. I love it, but I hate the version I usually get in restaurants. Restaurant crème brulee is generally served in a long, flat ramekin, and is about 50% custard and 50% solidified sugar crust (if you're lucky). I've often gotten crème brulee where the crust is so caramelized, it's virtually impenetrable. It's this hard, thick candy crust that I have to beat repeatedly with a knife in order to break it apart. It's barely even edible. Seriously? Not cool. That's not crème brulee, that's an excuse to eat sugar.

So I started making it at home, the way I like it--in a deep ramekin, with a sugar topping that's just barely burnt. No hard caramelization, and 98% custard. I like it that way so much, I got a crème brulee torch. Essentially it's a mini-blowtorch for your kitchen. Great fun to play with. But you can make this without a torch, and it's surprisingly easy, given that most people think it's terribly complicated and something one can only get in a fancy French restaurant. I will say this is one of the few recipes I follow by the letter. Usually I play fast and loose with measurements, proportions, seasonings, and even the basic ingredients, substituting willy-nilly, but this is not a dish that brooks substitutions.

2 cups heavy cream

3 large eggs

½ cup sugar

¾ teaspoon vanilla


Heat cream almost to a simmer. In a bowl, stir the eggs and sugar with a wooden spoon until just blended. Gradually stir into the cream, and add vanilla. Pour into ramekins and place them in a larger baking dish (I use a big Pyrex casserole). Add water to the large dish until it’s about halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake at 250 until slightly quivery in the center, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Remove ramekins from water bath, let cool to room temperature. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. To serve, unwrap, blot off any moisture, then caramelize by adding a dusting of sugar to the top of each one and either burn with a crème brulee torch or place under the broiler for a minute or so. Serve immediately.

Cost: I can get a big thing of heavy cream at Sam's for $2.98. Two cups of cream is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of that, so let's say $1.50 for the cream, 17 cents each for the eggs, pennies for the sugar and vanilla. Call it $2.15 total for 8 large ramekins of crème brulee, which is less than you'd pay for one distinctly inferior version in a restaurant.

Plus, you get to play with a blowtorch.

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