Cook Me Tender – Creme Brulee
I have had the worst sore throat ever this week. I thought I’d gotten over being sick but then this unbelievable sharp pain started in my throat. I don ‘t know if it was remnants of a virus or if I literally cut my throat from the inside because this was so sharp, focused and painful. As such I’ve been sitting at home the last few days consuming only soft foods and sleeping. Sleeping for 15 hours at a time. I NEVER do that and I hate how bogged down and depressed that kind of day makes me feel. In order to feel like I accomplished something I played around with fire.
There is such a primal fascination all of us seem to have with fire. It’s really no surprise and I doubt you’d need a psychologist to explain it–which is good because I’m NOT a shrink. I am however interested in learning how to make a really good creme brulee and so I buried myself in books to study this dessert’s history. In order to make one you need a good blow torch. I stupidly bought a “chef’s torch” and due to it’s faulty wiring nearly burned my entire hand. The hose wasn’t connected correctly straight out of the package so when I flicked on the gas, instead of fire pouring out the nozzle, the entire top of the product erupted in my hand. Where was the off switch you might ask, well it was ON TOP OF THE DAMN TORCH. Thankfully I am not injured and I replaced it with a more expensive but also proper hand torch. Serves me right for not buying the Alton Brown approved home depot equipment and going for the wimpier “chef tool”.
Creme brulee literally means “burned cream” and it consists of an egg based custard with a caramelized top of sugar. Now the trademark of a bad Creme Brulee is an undercooked top or an overcooked custard. The trick is to have a delicate, caramel topping that *crack, crack, CRACKs* into a delicious pool of cream below. Typically the manner of preparing this is to first slow cook the custard, the lower the temperature the more tender the result, chill the custard and then later flame the top with a blowtorch. This has 2 benefits: it keeps the custard from over cooking when the top is prepped AND makes this a great day-ahead dessert to prepare. You can bake the creams, then put them in the fridge for up to two days before presenting and it’s BETTER that way. Why exactly? It’s the proteins in the eggs that can overcook and cause the “creme” to become gelatin. After fully chilling you simply sprinkle some sugar on top and flame that to caramelize it. Easy peasy lemon squeezey.
Instead of providing the recipe I used (since this was just my first experiment with this technique) here are some helpful hints in your pursuit of the perfect creme brulee:
- Water baths ARE YOUR FRIEND. I’ve said this in the past about cheesecakes but here’s the skinny that I never full explained. When crafting a delicious, cream and egg based dessert, the longer and lower you cook it the better it will be. Water doesn’t heat past 212F(100 C) because when it’s heated past that point the liquid evaporates. When you suspend your custard dessert in this bath you are ensuring it is never going to be heated past that temperature no matter what your oven temperature is set to. Since ovens certainly tend to fluctuate this is the way to use any oven for the first time and get consistent results.
- This is actually even more complicated than I first suggested. The effectiveness of how the water maintains the temperature is a relationship between the balance of the water mass that’s being heated from below and the cooling from evaporation at the top. The type of pan you use for the water bath is also important. If you can use a heavy cast iron base, rather than stainless steel or glass, you’ll get better retention of the temperature just under boiling. You can also cover the bath and ensure boiling but this causes lighter custards to dance in the pan. Not so desirable. So the take away message: use a water bath, use cast iron whenever possible.
- If you want a warm creme brulee my suggestion is to also heat it slowly after the caramelizing of the top. The rumor is that only in the US is it ever served warm for this very reason. Another tip I saw for serving warm is to create a separate caramel disk which you can place on top of the warm cream right after it finishes rather than chilling, torching and serving later. It’s only “US” uncouth americans who seem to prefer it warm.
- The oldest creme brulee recipe according to Harold McGee dates to 1731 from Francois Massialot. Wikipedia claims it was actually the 1691 edition and the title of creme brulee was changed to cream anglaise in the 1731 english edition.