Creme brulee is one of those desserts that most people only have in restaurants because they don’t know that it’s actually a very simple dessert to make at home. A basic creme brulee is a baked vanilla custard that is topped with a layer of caramelized sugar. The sugar snaps when you crack into it with a spoon, revealing the smooth custard below. The caramelized sugar can get a slightly burnt in places, adding a slightly bitter flavor that is actually a lovely contrast to the sweet, creamy dessert.
Another reason that many people don’t make creme brulee at home is that they feel it requires special equipment. Most creme brulees are served in small, flat dishes or unusually shallow ramekins where you get a high crust-to-filling ratio. You don’t need any special dishes: regular 4 or 6 ounce ramekins (or other similar sized, oven-safe baking cups) still make a very good creme brulee and have the advantage of giving you a thicker and more indulgent custard layer. The sugar is typically cooked with a kitchen torch, and you can caramelize yours under the broiler if you don’t have one. That said, a kitchen torch is one piece of equipment I would definitely recommend getting because (a) if is fun to use and (b) you’ll be more likely to make creme brulee when you already have one.
This creme brulee is starts by making an egg-rich custard on the stove. Since creme brulee should be an indulgent dessert, I use some heavy cream when making mine. You can infuse the cream with a vanilla bean in advance, or simply add vanilla flavor with vanilla extract – both options work well. As much as I like vanilla beans, using vanilla extract seems to let the naturally eggy flavor of the custard come through a bit more. Once the custard has been prepared, it is poured into ramekins and baked in a water bath. The water bath keeps the custard at a low, consistent temperature and prevents bubbles from forming and helps keep the top of the custard smooth. If the top of your custard browns a little bit during baking, don’t worry, as it will be covered with sugar when you brulee it.
The custards should be thoroughly chilled before adding sugar for the topping. I like to use super fine sugar, but regular sugar will also work (finer sugar is generally better for this than coarser sugar because it melts faster), and I put a generous layer on so I will have a nice, thick crust. I caramelize it using my kitchen torch, then allow the caramel to set for about a minute before serving. You end up with a crisp caramel that is still warm and a cool custard below. The creme brulees can be bruleed in advance and stored in the refrigerator, but it is best not to leave them in the fridge for more than 1-2 hours to ensure that the caramel will remain perfectly crisp when ready to serve.
Classic Creme Brulee
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
boiling water, for water bath
sugar, for topping
Preheat oven to 325F. Arrange six 6-oz ramekins in a 9×13-inch baking dish.
Combine milk and cream in a medium saucepan (you can infuse this mixture with a vanilla bean for more vanilla flavor, if desired) and bring to a simmer.
In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, salt, eggs, egg yolks and vanilla extra until well combined. Whisking constantly, very slowly stream in the hot milk mixture to temper the eggs. Strain mixture into a large measuring cup or a bowl with a pouring spout.
Divide mixture evenly into prepared ramekins. Place pan onto a rack in the oven, and pour boiling water into the pan around the ramekins so that water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, until custards are set. A very sharp knife inserted into the center of a custard should come out clean.
Carefully remove tray from oven and use tongs to lift ramekins carefully out of the water bath and onto a cooling rack.
Cool to room temperature before refrigerating, then cover with plastic wrap and chill completely before adding topping.
Custards can be prepared up to two days in advance.
For topping: Add about a tablespoon of sugar onto the top of each custard and spread into an even layer. Using a kitchen torch and moving it slowly, but contsantly, caramelize the topping. Topping can also be caramelized under the broiler.
Allow caramel to set before serving.