Once you've perfected basic techniques like frying an egg and cooking rice, it's time to move on to those things that may have initially scared you off. Every other Monday, chef and stylist Camille Becerrais going beyond the basics to help us tackle even the scariest cooking techniques.
Today: Grab your torches. We're making crème brûlée.
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The beauty of crème brûlée is in its contrasting elements: The cool crème against warm caramel, the smoothness of the custard against the crunch of caramelized sugar. Like with all custard desserts, the key to a velvety smooth finish is gentle heat and a bit of patience.
My general rule for crème brûlée is to use 1 egg yolk per 1/2 cup cream, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar. If you are new to making crème brûlée, add 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch; this will help prevent curdling if the cream gets too hot and will help set the cream if it doesn't get hot enough. The ratio makes one serving; multiply it according to how many portions you want or how many ramekins you have.
Slowly warm the cream until it is just below a simmer, then add your flavorings. I find that cream loves not only vanilla but also aromatics like bay leaf, lavender, and lemon zest and hard spice like cinnamon, cardamon, or juniper. Check your pantry and use whatever inspires you. Add it to your cream, turn off the heat, and allow a good half hour for the flavors to infuse into the cream. Then strain out your aromatics and warm the cream back up to just under a simmer.
The following stages are the most temperamental. It is possible that you may break or curdle your cream, in which case you will need to start over. So do attempt the following techniques carefully, mindfully, and slowly.
Whisk together the yolks and sugar (and the cornstarch, if you're using it) until the yolks are pale and aerated. Slowly add the hot cream, a ladleful at a time, continuing to whisk. Once all the cream has been incorporated, strain the cream and egg mixture into a clean, heavy-bottomed pot.
Using a wooden spoon, stir continuously over low heat, making sure your spoon reaches the corners and bottom of the pot so that the custard cooks evenly. This process should take about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove your pot from the heat once it reaches a temperature of 170° F. Transfer into ramekins and chill for at least 4 hours.
Sprinkle the cooled custards with 1 tablespoon each of sugar and torch. When doing so, move the fire continuously so that caramelization is uniform. I prefer a torch to the broiler, as it keeps the cream from getting too warm. Once the sugar is caramelized, serve immediately.