If the average person knew how incredibly easy it is to make crème brulée at home, she would stop ordering it in every restaurant and let the pastry chefs get back to building masterpieces no one else has time for. Something about the perfectly creamy, cold richness seems to seduce even the most callous dessert-hater. Except Husband, who won't eat it. Crème brulée literally takes 10 minutes to prepare, less than an hour in the oven, and then a night in the fridge. And, you can give the power tool-loving person in your house something to do at dinner parties by breaking out the blow torch and being the brulée-er before dessert. Forget those silly little "kitchen torches" for sale at kitchen stores; they might look cute in a gift basket, but they are little more than a butane-guzzling glorified cigar lighter. You would never see one of those in a restaurant, no matter what the chef says in his cookbook. For less than $15, go to your local hardware store and buy yourself a blowtorch. Trust me.
I don't really go for flavored crème brulées - I tend to stick to the pure vanilla flavor, but I have been known to throw a few chai tea bags in with the milk. If you thinking about making chocolate crème brulée, just stop and tell yourself "no." We'll discuss chocolate pots de crème very soon, I promise.
Crème Brulée - Makes about 6 brulées in standard Brulée Dishes
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup half and half
1 vanilla bean
tiny (less than 1/8 tsp) pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar (depending on your taste; you can cut it down to 1/2 cup if you'd like)
7 egg yolks (if you double this recipe, replace one egg yolk with one whole egg for stability)
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp light brown sugar
Place the cream and half and half in a small sauce pan and cook over medium-low heat until a skin has formed on the top, or until you can barely touch it (this depends on the tenderness of your fingertips, of course), or about 180 degrees. In the meantime, place the sugar in a bowl and add the pinch of salt. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds from the pod with a small knife. Place the seeds in the sugar and the pod in the cream mixture. Blend the seeds into the sugar with your fingertips - you can add the split pod to the cream without mixing the seeds with the sugar, but I find they stay suspended in the brulee better this way. Separate the eggs, placing the yolks into the sugar, and whisk. When the cream is hot, very slowly whisk the cream into the egg/sugar mixture and stir thoroughly, but don't whisk air into the mixture. Strain the mixture into a pitcher through a fine-mesh sieve and add the vanilla. Allow to steep for 10 minutes or overnight (I know Thomas Keller would say overnight, but it's optional. Again, it's another way to be sure more vanilla seeds are suspended in the mixture, but the brulee will take 20-30 minutes more to cook).
Line a rimmed baking sheet* with paper towels and place the brulée dishes on top. Fill each dish to the top with the mixture - the custard will shrink as it bakes. Carefully transfer the pan to the middle rack of the oven, and fill the sheet pan 1/2 full with hot water (hot tap water is fine, no need to boil). Cook for 40 minutes, turning carefully after 30. The custards are done with the centers are just slightly shaky, but do not bulge when tilted. Remove carefully and cool on a rack before chilling. Refrigerate at least 6 hours before serving.
Combine the white and brown sugars. Spoon a teaspoon or so onto each chilled brulée, shaking gently to distribute the sugar. Torch with the tip of the blow torch flame, gently turning and tilting the dish to be sure all of the sugar is caramelized. This takes a little practice and fearlessness, and I suggest trying it on some pieces of fruit or something before you try your first brulee. Too much torching, and it will curdle the brulée underneath.
*I used custard cups for the brulée in the picture shown; if you choose to use these or ramekins instead of the traditional shallow brulée dish, you will need to use a deeper pan.