Making the ultimate crème brûlée

Making the ultimate crème brûlée … is it as difficult as it is made out to be? Or is it just a lot of hype over what is essentially an easy to make-at-home dessert? You’re about to find out from a person who is definitely not a “chef” by any stretch of imagination – so are you willing to chance it? Find out now…

When I was asked to write on “easy to make-at-home desserts”, I thought I’d fall off my chair laughing, because it is universally known that I am, to put it politely, culinary-challenged! But having thought about it for some time, I decided to accept the challenge and try my hand at … wait for it – crème brûlée! This was also because eons ago, I had picked up a kitchen torch as an impulse purchase (also something which I’m famous for) from John Lewis in London, and it was still in its original packaging because, of course, I had stuffed it away in a drawer and forgotten all about it! It took a bit of searching, (and some spring-cleaning while searching) but I found it, and thus began my foray into the hitherto unknown world of - not just cooking, not just making a dessert, but THE dessert which even chefs quail at essaying! But I thought – why not aim for the stars? If it was going to be a disaster, which frankly-speaking, it was shaping up to be, why not make it a spectacular one?

And here’s a shocker – it was not as difficult as I thought it would be! I researched a zillion recipes, found one which seemed doable (thank you, Sally! (External link) ), and followed it religiously. Remember, I am NOT a natural cook – actually I’m not any kind of cook – so I do not subscribe to “a pinch” of this, or a “dash” of that. I need specifics – so if you follow this recipe, you may very well find yourself with the smoothest, creamiest dessert ... ever! And the best part? It looks beautiful, as if made by a culinary whizzkid!!! Flecked with espresso, flavoured with vanilla, this is it - the brilliantly creamy custard which can be accessed by dramatically cracking through a crisp, caramelized sugar coating. The textural differences (I can’t believe it’s me using this terminology, so very Masterchef!) between the 2 layers is what tastes like sheer luxury.

Okay, so what do you need?

  1. Heavy cream – 3 cups or 720 ml
  2. Granulated sugar – ¾ cup or 150 gm - set aside ¼ cup for the caramel coating
  3. Egg yolks – 5 (the irony of it is that I made a healthy egg white omelet, and followed it up with the sinful crème brulee)
  4. Salt – ¼ tsp
  5. Vanilla essence – 1½ tsp (I had to borrow this from a friend, because I was really not going to buy a bottle of vanilla essence to use just 1½ teaspoonful!)
  6. Espresso powder – ½ tsp (I liked the idea of espresso powder and believe me, it lifts a crème brulee from just good to awesome – who knew?)

Heat the cream, espresso and salt on the stove. As soon as it begins to simmer, turn off the heat and add in the vanilla essence. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, and very slowly whisk in the warm cream mixture – you don’t want to make scrambled eggs!

Now comes the neat part – pour the mixture into shallow ramekins (again, borrowed from the same friend, who was sure I was setting myself up for a big fall). Then I had to make a water bath – seriously, who thinks of these things? So I found a large baking dish (inherited from my mother who was a great cook, by the way – those genes slunk by me!!!) placed all the ramekins inside, then gingerly filled the dish with hot water till it reached halfway up the ramekins – remember, it’s not literally a water bath!!! Apparently, this creates a moist and humid environment which is imperative for their texture. A regular hot oven produces rubbery-tasting crème brûlée with cracked surfaces. Then it went into the oven preheated at 325 degrees F accompanied by fervent prayers to the food gods, for between 30 to 35 minutes – after 25 minutes, I stood staring at the oven door, and by 30 minutes, my patience was exhausted …

You will likely overbake the crème brûlée the first time – is what my friend told me. The key is to look for a jiggly center. The edges will be set and the centers will be jiggly, like jello. If you have an instant read thermometer (I’d never heard of one, and my mum certainly never had one, but said friend helped me out again) it’s done when it registers 170 degrees F. I did a wee jig after I had taken the dish out at the 30 min mark – the centers jiggled, hallelujah!

After cooling them down, I had to put the ramekins in the fridge to set for at least 4 hours, which was just right because then hopefully, they would be ready to eat after my dinner of egg-white omelet (with cheese, of course) and salad. I don’t cook, but I can make a mean salad and am excellent with eggs.

The fun part? Torching the sugar to make the caramel topping! But I had to be careful about ensuring that the entire surface of all the ramekins was well covered with a thin layer of sugar – no exposed custard or the cooled custard would curdle. And I was damned if that was going to happen after all my efforts!
The result? I may be biased, but that crème brûlée tasted like a little bit of heaven! And it was made by me!!