how to make a perfect creme brûlée
Here's my favorite basic formula for about 6 servings. There are 2 secrets: bake them in a water bath, and DON'T overbake them!
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Put a kettle of water (at least a quart) on to boil.
Whisk together 1 whole egg and 3 egg yolks. Veeeeeeery slowly add a rounded 1/3 cup sugar, whisking continuously. This lets the sugar dissolve adequately without yanking excess water out of cells in the eggs.
Bring to a scald in a stainless steel pan (not aluminum, in other words; the lactic acid in the cream reacts poorly with aluminum and it will actually take on a greyish color, and taste sort of like tin foil) 16 ounces of heavy cream - tiny, uniform bubbles will appear around the edge.
Temper the cream into the eggs by adding it veeeeeeery slowly, whisking continuously. Whisking in 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.
Pour the mixture into a measuring cup because it's easier to pour cleanly from one. Divide your custard among 4 to 6 ramekins (depending on size). No ramekins? Use coffee cups instead. Set them inside a baking pan large enough to hold them with at least a half-inch between them. Set the baking pan in the oven, with the front edge overhanging the rack by about an inch. Carefully pour in the boiling water until it comes almost to the lip of the baking pan. Gently push it the rest of the way into the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes. The custard is done when you can bump the edge of a ramekin, and the custard should "jiggle like jello, not wiggle like a wave."
I use a canning jar lifter to remove the ramekins onto a cool baking sheet. Turn off the oven and leave the door ajar; remove the baking dish of hot water only when it has cooled sufficiently.
Refrigerate your perfect custards and serve when cooled completely.
To serve, sprinkle the surface with sugar (coarse sanding sugar is great for this) and burn it with a torch. I use a propane torch that I got at Ace Hardware; it burns hotter than butane, so you get a really good caramelization of the sugar quickly, and lasts much, much longer. Look for what is called a propane kit - it comes with a propane cylinder and a screw-on electronic ignition - about $25.
And get creative with your custard flavors: in place of vanilla extract, infuse the cream while heating with a couple of strips of orange zest and add a couple of ounces of Grand Marnier after you've whisked the cream into the eggs. Alternatively, use lemon zest and Limoncello. Have fun with it!
Cynthia, you are the best.
No, Dr. B, it's just the crème brûlée talking ;0)
Other tips to add to Cynthia's excellent summary:
- like with ice cream bases, the custard base improves in flavour and texture if you let it set overnight before baking
- after pouring in the boiling water, wrap the baking dish in high quality clingfilm/plastic wrap and then cover that with foil (then carefully, carefully, port the dish to the oven).
- if you really want to get perfect, you can quickly torch the top of the unbaked custard to remove any air bubbles that accumulated when you filled the ramekins.